An Ashley County jury found a Parkdale man guilty of first degree murder in the burning death of Jesse Burton, but ultimately hung on what sentence to hand down.
Judge Bynum Gibson sentenced Anthony D. Brown, 50, to life in prison without parole following the hung jury in the sentencing phase of his trial.
Brown poured gasoline on Burton and burned him the night that the victim died. The two had apparently exchanged harsh words at another location.
“We all have our ideas of the worst possible death, and being burned alive has to be at the top,” Gibson said during the sentencing phase of the two-day trial.
The charges against Brown were filed in January after Burton’s death on New Year’s Eve. The original report from investigator Mark Griever said that Burton died at Chicot Memorial Medical Center after witnesses, and Burton himself, reported the incident to Griever.
According to Griever’s affidavit for arrest filed in January, Griever spoke with Burton in the ambulance before he was transported and at that time Burton was repeatedly saying that Brown “came out of nowhere” and set him on fire.
Brown was formally charged with first degree murder and appeared before a circuit judge for a first appearance on Jan. 2. His jury trial was originally set for May, but was continued until last week.
Deputy Prosecutor Frank Spain represented the state and Jimmy Morris represented Brown. The jury was selected and began hearing testimonies and viewing exhibits on Tuesday.
The jury heard testimony from Griever, Lameteca Caldwell and Jermiah Williams and also reviewed video and audio recordings of testimonies by Brown and the 911 call made by Burton.
According to the witness testimony and exhibits presented, the incident happened at Reuben Mooney’s home in Parkdale and was not the first altercation between the two. Witnesses stated that Brown had approached Burton on three other occasions with guns, but nothing ever transpired until the gasoline incident.
Caldwell testified that he saw Brown approach the victim, who was sitting on steps outside of a residence, and pour a cup of something on the victim and say, “You must not know, I’m Wayne Brown.” Caldwell and Williams’ testimony both said Brown continued to say similar phrases after he lit Burton on fire.
Spain argued that Brown took the cup of gasoline to the location where Burton was with full intent to kill him. Morris argued that not only was the killing an accident, but the cause of death was not certain and therefore Brown could not be found guilty.
When the medical examiner testified on Wednesday, Morris asked multiple questions about the defendant’s heart and cause of death.
In closing statements, Morris told the jury that because there was a chance that the victim died from a heart condition and not burns, they could not find Brown guilty.
“Reasonable doubt is when a medical examiner can’t say for certain,” Morris said.
Morris said there was evidence that Burton suffered a heart attack and that it was an opinion that it was caused by “the pain and stress of burns,” but that it could not be determined whether Burton would have died had he not already had certain heart conditions.
Morris also pointed out the portion of the medical report that stated that Burton had other substances in his system such as cannibas, fentanyl, opiates, morphine and nicotine – some of which was given to him while he was being treated by the ambulance, but not all of it.
“The medical examiner said that those substances in his system could have affected his heart,” Morris said. “He (the examiner) couldn’t say that without the heart condition and all of the things affecting his heart that he still would have died and that is reasonable doubt.”
Morris told the jury that because the state had not met their burden of proof that finding Brown guilty would not be following the law. He told the jury that he wasn’t saying his client was innocent, but because of the burden of proof, he was not guilty.
“You want someone to be responsible, it’s our nature,” Morris said. “You promised you would follow the law; if you can’t prove causation, you have no choice but to find him not guilty.”
Spain said that the front page of the medical examiner’s report states that the victim died of thermal burns and the fact that the medical examiner couldn’t say whether he would have survived the incident with a healthier heart doesn’t change the cause of death.
“His (the medical examiner’s) opinion was that he died as a result of being set on fire,” Spain said. “He didn’t die because of a heart condition, he died from burns.”
The medical report declared that Burton’s heart failure was directly associated with injuries and that the burns caused “excessive strain on the heart.”
“It (the medical report) says directly associated with injures, so it’s a homicide,” Spain said.
Morris also stated that his client never intended to kill Burton and referred to Brown’s recorded testimony where Brown was seen crying hysterically stating that he did not mean to kill Burton.
Morris told the jury that if Brown had intended to kill Burton that he would have done so with the gun that he reportedly had during the first three times Brown approached Burton.
Spain said that not only did Brown purposefully kill Burton, he planned it.
“He (Brown) said that he didn’t have any weapons, so he took a cup of gasoline,” Spain said. “He said he was going to throw it on him and run away; that’s not just on purpose, that’s a plan.”
According to Brown’s recorded testimony, he had approached Burton three different times before the burning incident.
“On the fourth time he lit him on fire and watched him burn,” Spain said. “Not only did he not try to put the fire out, he mocked him as he was on fire.”
The jury went into deliberation for less than an hour and came back and declared Brown guilty of first-degree murder. The sentencing, however, was not decided as swiftly.
During the sentencing portion of the trial, Spain only called one witness and introduced two exhibits. He introduced Brown’s prior battery conviction and a photograph of Burton with one of his family members.
Morris called Brown’s sister to the stand. She testified that her brother was both a hard worker and a family man with young children, who would never hurt anyone.
“I would ask you to have mercy on him because all of us are guilty of something,” she said.
Brown also took the stand and talked about his four young children and said that sometimes, “bad things happen to good people.”
Morris asked that the jury be merciful and remember that the justice system is to rehabilitate people to become meaningful members of society which is ultimately for the betterment of society.
“Everybody is redeemeable,” Morris said. “Blessed are the merciful.”
Spain said that Brown had already been given a second chance when he was convicted of a violent offense in 1999 and only served probation.
“He (Brown) has two violent offenses,” Spain said. “Don’t let him be the bad thing that happens to good people one more time.”
Gibson had to ask the bailiffs to remove a member of Brown’s family who was screaming hysterially during jury instruction. One of the bailffs reported that he called an ambulance becaue he believed she was having a seizeure. An ambulance was called, but her condition was not verified.
During the first hour of the sentencing deliberation, the jury came out with two different questions before sending a note to the judge that one of the jurors had asked to be excused.
“We all have a first at something and this is a first for me,” Gibson said.
Gibson asked the attorneys to approach the bench so that the law could be discussed and then he asked the juror to state why she was asking to be dismissed.
The juror said that she wanted to be dismissed because she was never going to agree with the other jurors about the length of sentence that the defendant should receive.
“That’s not a reason to be excused, that’s what you call a hung jury,” Gibson said.
Gibson asked the lead juror if he thought more deliberation could result in an unianimous sentence or if further deliberations would be a waste of time. Both the lead juror and the one requesting to be dismissed said that an agreement would not be reached. However, after consulting with both attorneys at the bench, Gibson instructed the jury to return to the jury room even if only for a few miutes.
“Return when you have a verdict or know there is not going to be one, whether it be two minutes or 20,” Gibson said.
Once the jury returned less than 15 minutes later to say that a verdict would not be reached, the judge told the courtroom that he would then be responsible for sentencing.
“If the jury is unable to reach a verdict, it becomes the obligation of this court,” Gibson said.
Gibson gave Brown an opportunity to speak before he issued his sentence. Brown asked the judge to have mercy so that he may one day get out of prison to see his kids.
“Your honor, I didn’t mean to kill anyone,” Brown said.
Gibson said that he heard Brown’s statement to the police, the testimonies, the arguments and viewed the same exhibits.
“This much is clear, you sought out Jesse Burton three times,” Gibson said. “There was no evidence that he was armed, that he took a swing at you, no evidence that at any time during his entire life that he harmed you or anyone else.”
Gibson said that Burton was a human being and showed Brown a photograph of what Burton looked like after he was set on fire. Gibson said that the testimonies said that Burton was sitting down at the time of the incident and that he wasn’t threatening to harm Brown or anyone else. Though Brown claims he only meant to throw it on his feet, Gibson said he didn’t believe that to be the case and that no one deserves to die in the manner that Burton died.
“You pursued this man and for whatever reason made him go through hell before he died,” Gibson said. “Anything less than a life sentence would devalue him and say that he is less than anyone here, and he is not.”
Gibson told Brown that Burton had just a much a right to live as anyone else in the courtroom and that no amount of pain that Brown could suffer would equal what Burton suffered before he died.
Gibson said that whatever mental pain Brown would suffer while being separated from his children and family couldn’t compare to the pain and suffering that Burton felt as he burned alive.
Brown was sentenced to life without parole and ordered to be held in the custody of the Ashley County Sheriff until he could be transported to the Arkansas Department of Corrections.