Arkansas Court Tosses Out Death Penalty in Slaying Over Card Game

Arkansas' highest court ordered an inmate off death row Thursday, citing a 1940 court decision that gave an escape clause from an aggravated-robbery conviction to people trying to recover gambling losses.

Michael B. Daniels said he was attempting to recover $20 he lost in a game of three-card monte when he stabbed and killed James Williams, 52, on Jan. 8, 2006. Daniels claimed during the trial that Williams had cheated in the game.

Justices cited a 1940 ruling that said someone couldn't be convicted of aggravated robbery while trying to recover gambling losses. Aggravated robbery was the underlying circumstance when a jury ordered Daniels to die for Williams' death.

In a dissenting opinion, one justice said that a civil lawsuit, not violence, is the preferred way to recover money.

The split court reversed Daniels' aggravated robbery conviction and the capital murder charge linked to it, but upheld his conviction for premeditated and deliberate capital murder. Justices ordered a new sentencing hearing.

In its order, justices relied on a 68-year-old case that said an attempt to recover gambling losses by force prohibits a conviction of robbery.

"Because the evidence was insufficient to support a conviction for aggravated robbery, it was necessarily insufficient to support a conviction for capital-felony murder with robbery as the underlying felony," Associate Justice Robert L. Brown wrote in the majority opinion.

Brown acknowledged that some could argue the 1940 case was not in the public's interest, but said, "it is nonetheless still good law in Arkansas."

"Even if this court were to overturn Davidson, it would be inappropriate to retroactively apply the charge to Daniels," he wrote.

The 1940 ruling said that someone may lose possession of their money lost in gambling, but still can claim title to the money for 90 days, Daniels' attorney said.

"Really, even beyond that case, it makes sense because you have to be able to commit a theft in order to commit a robbery," said Teri Chambers, an attorney with the Arkansas Public Defender Commission who handled Daniels' appeal. "You have to be taking someone else's property to commit a theft."

In a dissent, one justice warned of the problems of following a 68-year-old ruling and its impact.

"While our country prides itself in functioning under the rule of law, Davidson undercuts that noble purpose of our judicial system. ... There is no reason for anyone to resort to an attack like the one in this case when a civil statutory method of recovery exists," Associate Justice Jim Gunter wrote. "Public policy is hardly served under these faces."

During the trial, Daniels' attorney admitted that his client stabbed Williams in the head, chest and stomach with a Bowie knife. The attack was recorded on surveillance video.

Prosecutors said there was no evidence that Williams cheated during the card game.

In another dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Tom Glaze wrote that the question of whether Daniels was trying to recover a gambling debt should have been left up to the jury.

"In adopting Daniels's argument, the majority ignores the evidence before the jury," Glaze wrote. "My problem with the majority opinion is its conclusion that the trial court erred in allowing the jury to consider whether Daniels was, in fact, attempting to recover a gambling debt."