BENTON COUNTY, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — A former Northwest Arkansas children’s shelter employee is seeking a new trial after being convicted of raping a minor resident and being sentenced to life in prison.
Hunter De La Garza, 24, was found guilty on January 20. On February 23, his attorney filed a motion seeking a new trial pursuant to Arkansas rules of criminal procedure.
Attorney Ben Catterlin wrote that the testimony of a witness introduced by the prosecution was “improper and reversible,” and he noted that the defense objected to it at the time. He addressed the witness’s expected testimony and said that an incident she referenced and the crime De La Garza was accused of had no common denominator to tie him to “proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity or absence of mistake or accident.”
The motion cited case law stating that a defendant’s prior bad act must be “independently relevant” to the crime in question to be admissible at trial. It adds that the witness did not qualify under rule 404(b) and should not have been allowed to testify.
“The testimony she proffered would purely be propensity evidence meant to inflame the jury against the Defendant,” the filing added.
The motion continued by explaining that testimony by the witness was “improper” because it revealed another alleged rape by De La Garza when there was no other evidence of that in the record. It called the prosecution’s reference to that in front of the jury “highly improper and prejudicial.”
It adds that at the time of trial, no charges were being investigated regarding the additional incident the witness mentioned.
“All lines of these questions are improper and cannot be allowed to be used during the course of a trial. In making this statement the Prosecution is saying that the Victim’s statement is infallible and hence beyond questioning, which is improper and further used to inflame the jury.”
Arkansas v. De La Garza, defense motion for a new trial, February 23
It quoted the prosecution as telling the jury “yes, you are also here to determine what happened to [the witness],” and it called that “an incorrect statement of law” because it “imputes guilt on the defendant.” It also said that two prosecution statements made during closing arguments “shifted the burden to the Defense, which is improper and reversible.”
The motion continued by citing another case in Arkansas which found that “it is necessary to award a new trial when counsel’s overzealousness in arguing to the jury matters of fact are not supported by the proof.” It also noted that the court had repeatedly said that closing arguments “must be confined to questions in issue, the evidence introduced during trial, and all reasonable inferences and deductions which can be drawn therefrom.”
It went on to address statements the prosecution made about the defendant’s attorney, saying that it made “several attacks” against him during its closing, using a reference to his physical stature as a “purely derogatory attack” to “inflame the jury about the cross-examination of the victim.”
It specifically took issue with the following prosecution statement: “And just because his lawyer knows better ways to rape a kid than he does doesn’t mean that he’s innocent.” The filing cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision that stated “it is improper for counsel to make derogatory, personal remarks about opposing counsel. Ad Hominem comments have no place in our courts.”
The filing included an attached transcript of the state’s closing argument.