A Crawford County Circuit Court judge has denied a defense attorney’s request to disqualify the prosecuting attorney in the resentencing of the man found guilty of murdering a Van Buren woman.
Judge Gary R. Cottrell ruled Monday that Prosecuting Attorney Marc McCune would not be recused in the case of Tony Alan Ray, 36, convicted in the June 24, 1997, death of Lisa Blasingame Lewis at her North 13th Street home.
A Crawford County Circuit Court jury sentenced Ray, then 16, to life in prison without parole.
The United States Supreme Court has struck down mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile homicide offenders — a ruling that affected the laws in 29 states including Arkansas.
The court ruled 5 to 4 that denying juveniles who have committed homicide a chance to ever rejoin society is counter to national and “global” consensus and violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The decision follows the court’s 2005 decision that, no matter what crime they commit, juveniles may not be executed. It also reinforced the court’s view that the 8th Amendment’s protections against harsh punishment must be interpreted in light of the country’s “evolving standards of decency.”
Defense attorney Kent McLemore, who was apppointed by the Arkansas Public Defenders Commission, requested Cottrell disqualify McCune because he was prejudice because he knew of allegations that Ray had been sexually abused by a family member as a young child and had not forwarded the information to Ray’s defense attorney in 1997.
“My client was severely abused by a family member for years,” McLemore said. “The Van Buren Police Department and Department of Human Services investigated the matter and found it to be true.”
By not disclosing the information to Ray’s defense attorney, McLemore said the prosecuting attorney’s office “deprived my client the opportunity to disclose information that would have helped my client in sentencing.”
McCune countered that there was no evidence presented at Monday’s hearing that then-defense attorney Ron Fields did not know about the alleged sexual abuse.
“We gave the defense all we had,” McCune said. “This was a separate incident that was totally independent and not related to the murder which was June 24. The sexual abuse was not reported until June 30.”
Betty Bentley, who was a detective with the Van Buren Police Department in 1997, testified Monday the alleged abuse was reported four days after Ray’s arrest. She said she had forwarded the report that Ray had been molested since he was three or four years old to her superiors.
Lt. Steve Staggs testified he was unable to located Bentley’s report.
“I am not saying it never existed,” Staggs said. “I am just saying it does not exist now and was probably purged.”
John Lowden, a custodian of records for DHS, said a one-page report of the incident was forwarded to the prosecuting attorney’s office.
“Police never requested a warrant,” McCune said. “It is crazy to say we were prejudice then or now.”
Cottrell said he would set a hearing to consider how Ray will be resentenced under the Fair Sentencing of Minors Act of 2017 passed both chambers of the Arkansas legislature in March.
Now known as Act 539, it will make more than 100 people currently serving life sentences in Arkansas for juvenile offenses eligible for parole after 20 or 30 years, depending on their conviction.
Lewis was shot in the abdomen, neck and right hand while she begged for her life and recited the Lord’s Prayer. She lived about three hours after she was shot and was able to tell police that two white men stole her vehicle.
Ray and Michael Wayne Hinkston, 18, allegedly stole Lewis’ 1995 Firebird and fled the scene before being captured at the one-mile marker on Interstate 40 west of Van Buren.
Cottrell ordered Ray to the Varner unit of the Department of Correction.