LITTLE ROCK — The state Court of Appeals on Wednesday overturned a man’s conviction in the alleged sexual assault of a young child, ruling that the state unfairly changed the charge against him during his trial.
Juan Carlos Martinez was initially charged in Benton County Circuit Court with rape, but during his Oct. 16, 2012, bench trial, after the state rested its case it amended the criminal information to include not only rape but the lesser offense of second-degree sexual assault.
The trial judge allowed the change over the defense’s objections and convicted Martinez of the lesser offense, sentencing him to 20 years in prison.
In a 4-2 ruling, a six-judge panel of the Court of Appeals said Wednesday the judge erred in allowing the change, which the court said "unfairly surprised" the defense.
Judge Waymond Brown wrote in the majority opinion that Martinez prepared a defense based on the charge of rape, but "the amendment changed the nature of the offense charged. The elements of the crime were different, and appellant essentially had to defend against a different charge."
Judges Rita Gruber and Rhonda Wood dissented. Wood said in the minority opinion that amendments to a criminal information during a trial can be allowed to prevent a defendant from escaping punishment via a technical defense.
"The majority’s decision allows appellant to go free on a dubious ‘technical defense.’ This is precisely the type of case where an amendment is appropriate," Wood wrote in the opinion.
Judges Phillip Whitaker and Larry Vaught concurred in the majority opinion. Chief Judge Robert Gladwin wrote a separate opinion in which he said he agreed with the majority’s decision to overturn Martinez’s conviction but felt compelled to write separately to respond to the dissent.
"The dissent suggests that this case is decided on a technicality. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution is not a technicality," Gladwin wrote.