Heading into the new year there are two post-conviction cases that have been with the firm for quite a while and will be for the conceivable future. Both involve men accused of sexually assaulting their nieces at their house over a considerable period of time. However, that’s where the similarities end.
Vankirk has been written about extensively in the news and on this blog. His case involves allegations that he sexually assaulted his niece when she was younger. After the first day of trial had already begun, Vankirk pled guilty to all three counts of Rape. He was convinced by his trial attorney that it would win him points with the jury that he admitted his guilt and they would take it easy on him. They did not. He was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. Fortunately, over trial counsel’s objection, the State played a video of his niece’s interview with an investigator. I was hired for the appeal a few weeks after the sentence was pronounced. The sentenced was reversed when the Arkansas Supreme Court became the first court to broadly hold that the Confrontation Clause applies at sentencing.
After vacating the sentence, Vankirk is now taking aim at the guilty plea itself. He alleges that he only plead guilty because of the erroneous advice of his trial counsel. He asserts that he is not guilty and wants a trial for the chance to prove it. He has letters from his niece indicating that she was forced to say Vankirk raped her or she would be sent off to an orphanage. Currently, the motion to withdraw the guilty plea is pending before the Greene County Circuit Court with a hearing likely to come in late February or early March. The State believes the motion is untimely, and if the Court agrees, it could lead to another big case before the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Estrada has been with the James Law Firm since I was a clerk. A public defender represented Estrada at trial and then Estrada hired our firm for the appeal. The appeal was unsuccessful because trial counsel failed to file any motions or object; consequently, there were no grounds for appeal. The family then hired us for a Rule 37 Petition for Ineffective Assistance of Counsel (“IAC”). Estrada’s IAC claim involved an extraordinary amount of work to discovery all of the investigatory and legal failures on the part of Estrada’s trial counsel. The hearing lasted a full 8 hours, involved countless witnesses, and created over 400 pages of testimony. After reviewing the hearing and record for 3 months, the trial judge filed a 30 page order granting the petition and ordering a new trial for Estrada.
The State has recently filed a notice of appeal and we are currently awaiting the record to be filed. Success on the appeal looks promising. Rule 37 petitions are rarely granted and in the event they are, they are rarely overturned on appeal. My expectations are not only to win the appeal but to establish more Arkansas case law to support IAC claims in the future. The challenge is going to be making sure that Estrada wins his new trial. The inconsistencies in the alleged victim’s story, the improbability of her statements, and the character of Estrada all provide ample ammunition for the trial ahead.