LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Supreme Court said Thursday a judge in Poinsett County failed to follow proper procedure when the jury deliberating in a capital murder trial submitted a question. But that was not enough to overturn the life prison sentence of a Harrisburg man.
Billy Allen Combs, now 60, was convicted Sept. 18, 2019, in the shooting death of his roommate, Michael Smith, 22.
During the trial, Harrisburg police Lt. Justin Kimble testified Combs shot Smith 10 times in the head with a .22-caliber rifle.
Though Combs’ defense attorney cross-examined Kimble over statements he made in his official report from the incident, which occurred a year earlier, the report itself was never entered into the court record.
The jury sent a note to Judge Pamela Honeycutt asking, “Can we see Officer Kimble’s statement?”
After discussing the question with prosecutors and defense attorneys, Honeycutt said, “I’m going to say on here, ‘what do you mean by his statement’ and see what they say. Is that alright with everybody?”
The prosecutor agreed and the defense attorney didn’t object.
The jury didn’t respond to the judge’s note and returned a guilty verdict.
On appeal, Combs’ new attorneys argued state law requires judges to respond to jury inquiries in open court.
But Associate Justice Robin F. Wynne, writing for the Supreme Court majority, said Honeycutt’s violation didn’t prejudice the jury.
“Reversing on the facts presented here would put form over substance, which is not the rule,” Wynne wrote.
Justice Josephine Linker Hart disagreed.
“The purpose of the jury-trial mechanism is to seek the truth, so when proceedings against a defendant deviate from that mechanism’s intended structure, the result of those proceedings is undermined,” Hart argued. “Combs did not agree to the circuit court’s sending a written message to the jury, and he was deprived of the opportunity to address the jury’s concerns in open court.”
Combs reportedly told police he killed Smith as they argued over rent money.
When asked why he shot the victim so many times, Kimble said Combs responded, “It was all the bullets I had.”