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Court: Capital-Murder Defendant’s Erratic Behavior Not Cause To Doubt Competence

LITTLE ROCK — A capital-murder defendant’s erratic behavior during his trial did not constitute sufficient evidence to cause reasonable doubt about his competence to stand trial, the state Supreme Court said Thursday.

The high court unanimously affirmed Ronald Britton Jr.’s conviction and sentence of life without possibility of parole in the 2010 stabbing death of his girlfriend, Michelle Asher, 26, of Greenbrier.

In oral arguments before the Supreme Court last month, an attorney for Britton argued that his behavior in the courtroom, including incoherent rambling and a sudden lunge toward a witness who testified against him, should have put the trial judge on notice that he was not competent to stand trial.

An attorney for the state argued that although experts for both sides in the case agreed that Britton, 38, is bipolar, they also offered the opinion that he was competent to stand trial, so neither side requested a competency hearing — nor did Britton’s behavior strike anyone during the trial as cause to request a competency hearing.

The Supreme Court agreed with the state that Faulkner County Circuit Judge Charles “Ed” Clawson did not abuse his discretion by failing to halt the trial and order a competency hearing that neither side in the case had requested.

The high court noted that after Britton lunged at a witness, the defense’s expert was asked to comment on Britton’s behavior.

The expert “testified that individuals with similar illnesses are significantly more irritable, easily agitated, and aggressive. We conclude that being more irritable, agitated, and aggressive is not the equivalent of being incompetent to stand trial,” Justice Paul Danielson wrote in the Supreme Court’s opinion.

The high court acknowledged that after Britton decided to take the stand against his lawyer’s advice, an exchange occurred between Britton and Clawson that “undeniably included some incoherent rambling by Britton.” But the court also said that when Britton took the stand later in the presence of the jury, he testified “very coherently.”

“In conclusion, this court cannot say that there was sufficient evidence before the circuit court to cause a reasonable doubt about Britton’s capacity to understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him, to consult with his counsel, and to assist in preparing his defense,” Danielson wrote.

Britton’s attorney also said during oral arguments that Clawson should have declared a mistrial after Britton lunged at a witness and subsequently was placed in handcuffs, shackles and a stun belt.

The Supreme Court disagreed, saying a mistrial is an extreme remedy and that Britton did not demonstrate that he was so prejudiced by his outburst and shackling that he could not receive a fair trial.

“Furthermore, this court has held that where an appellant was responsible for an outburst in front of the jury, the circuit court did not abuse its discretion by failing to reward appellant’s misbehavior with a mistrial,” Danielson wrote.

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