The Arkansas Supreme Court last Thursday rejected an appeal by a man convicted of abducting and killing a central Arkansas real estate agent.
The state’s highest court upheld Aaron Michael Lewis’ kidnapping and capital murder convictions in the September 2014 abduction and slaying of 50-year-old Beverly Carter of Scott. Lewis was sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping and life in prison without possibility of parole for capital murder.
Lewis’ wife, Crystal Lowery, testified during Lewis’ trial that the Jacksonville couple posed as potential home buyers and arranged with Carter to look at a house, with plans to kidnap Carter and demand a ransom. Lewis met with Carter and abducted her, but after he learned that police were involved, he killed her and buried her body, Lowery testified.
Other testimony showed that authorities obtained cellphone records indicating Carter had been in frequent contact with a number that was found to be Lowery’s.
A medical examiner with the state crime lab testified that Carter died from asphyxiation caused by duct tape covering her face.
Lewis, now 36, who also has gone by the name Arron Lewis, argued on appeal that his cellphone should not have been admitted as evidence in his trial because an officer with the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office seized the phone while illegally detaining him.
Lt. Mark Swaggerty was conducting surveillance at Lowery’s home when he saw Lewis leave in a car on Sept. 28, 2014. While rounding a curve, Lewis lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a ditch.
Swaggerty asked Lewis questions about Carter’s disappearance and seized Lewis’ phone. Lewis was transported to a hospital from which he later fled. Authorities apprehended Lewis on Sept. 29, 2014.
The Supreme Court said Thursday that Swaggerty had reasonable cause to believe Lewis had information about the commission of a crime, so his actions were proper.
The Supreme Court also rejected an argument by Lewis that officers illegally seized items from his vehicle when it was impounded after he wrecked it. The court said police may seize items as criminal evidence from an impounded vehicle, provided they do not impound the vehicle as a mere pretext for a search.
Lewis further argued that jurors should not have been allowed to hear a recording of Carter’s voice from his cellphone. In the recording, Carter told her husband — though the message was never sent to him — that she had not been hurt and asked him to do what her kidnapper said and not to call police.
After Lewis’ arrest, and after he asked for a lawyer, he told officers they were “running out of time” and played the recording of Carter’s voice for them, implying that she was still alive although in fact she was not.
Lewis’ comments to the officers were excluded from his trial, but the recording was admitted. Lewis argued on appeal that the recording was part of his statement and should have been suppressed.
The Supreme Court said the recording was not part of Lewis’ statement, citing a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case United States v. Patane, which held that a defendant’s statement, after he asked for a lawyer, concerning the location of a handgun was inadmissible but the handgun itself was admissible.
“In this instance, we conclude that the recording of the victim was not a testimonial statement made by Lewis and was admissible into evidence,” the court said in an opinion written by Chief Justice Dan Kemp.
Justice Josephine Hart wrote in a separate, concurring opinion that she did not believe the Patane case was relevant because it concerned a statement a defendant was pressured by police into making. She said Lewis’ statement was spontaneous and not in response to a question, so “there was no police misconduct” and therefore the recording of Carter’s voice was admissible.
Lewis also argued that the state improperly obtained phone records through prosecutor’s subpoenas. The Supreme Court said Lewis had no standing to challenge the subpoenas because they were issued to third parties, not to him.
The Supreme Court declined to consider an argument that officers made false promises to Lewis to solicit a second statement from him, saying the issue was being raised for the first time on appeal.
The high court rejected a cross-appeal by the state concerning evidence that was suppressed by the trial judge. The cross-appeal was not filed in a timely manner, the court said.