With a debit card holding $1.28, and wearing a dark gray sweatsuit given to him by the Crawford County Detention Center, Rickey Dale Newman rode away Wednesday a free man after 16 years in confinement for a murder he confessed to in 2001.
Following an Arkansas Supreme Court reversal in 2014, “lack of admissible evidence” for a retrial of the former transient is the root of disappointment for the special prosecutor assigned to Newman’s case.
“It’s never feels right when a murder death perpetrator is not brought to justice,” Ron Fields said at his Fort Smith office Thursday.
Fields, the former Sebastian County prosecutor who had been assigned to the case, noted in a letter to Circuit Judge Gary R. Cottrell on Tuesday that an Arkansas Supreme Court opinion issued Sept. 21 “effectively precludes the state introducing the defendant’s confession at any hearing or trial."
Fields wrote that although he felt there were no mistakes in the initial investigation and prosecution, and the Van Buren Police Department arrested the right person for the grisly murder of Marie Cholette in February 2001 at the Benny Billy homeless camp, there was not sufficient evidence available "to justify the expense both to the court's time and the cost to the public for this case to go to a jury trial." He then submitted a motion to nolle prosequi.
It was a motion he says he did not make lightly, and only after "lengthy and strenuous investigation" with the Van Buren police, the Arkansas State Police and the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory.
Fields noted he had asked the Arkansas State Police to assist the Van Buren police in a "thorough inventory" of the police evidence locker and determine whether further DNA testing was required.
"Several items were located and were sent to the crime lab for further testing," Fields wrote. "The results of those tests were that the items were not of evidentiary value at this time. DNA testing was also completed on various hair samples that had been obtained in crime scene searches by police in the original investigation. At the original trial, testimony was given to the jury indicating the hairs found tended to connect the defendant and the victim. Subsequent DNA testing refuted this fact."
In January 2014, the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed Newman’s capital murder conviction, “citing the defendant’s various defects and diseases,” Fields added. The court sent Newman back to Crawford County for retrial.
“At the trial which was the subject of the Supreme Court’s reversal, the State of Arkansas had introduced several statements made by the defendant admitting his guilt in the murder of Marie Cholette,” Fields wrote. “In addition, the defendant had personally told the jury that he had killed the victim. The Supreme Court’s opinion will prevent all these incriminating statements from being introduced into evidence at any new trial. Without this evidence, it is my belief that sufficient evidence does not exist at this time to retry the case.”
Fields noted in his letter to Cottrell that a search by the Arkansas State Police through a national database turned up no homicides committed in the manner in which Cholette was killed. Cholette’s body was mutilated in a specific way.
“Based on my experience, it was clear that whoever perpetrated this crime would have committed other crimes of a similar nature if they were still at large in the public,” Fields wrote. “The results were that no other crimes matched the type of violence displayed in this case.”
Crawford County Sheriff Ron Brown said that Newman started out “disgruntled” when he was first brought in 21 months ago, but had not required disciplinary action and “stayed to himself.” The county has paid for Newman’s $800-per-month medication for nearly two years, the sheriff noted.
“He was in isolation lockdown at his request and even turned down outside time,” Brown added.
Wednesday, after being released from jail, Newman waited about 20 minutes in a car with his defense attorney, Julie Brain of Philadelphia. He then got into a dark crewcab truck and was driven away.
“He did tell me, because I asked, that he was going to Montana to stay with a sister,” Brown said.