BENTON COUNTY, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — Judge Brad Karren in the Benton County circuit court ruled that a former child center employee convicted of raping a minor resident during a one-on-one outing will not receive a new trial.
Hunter De La Garza, 24, was found unanimously guilty on January 20 after a jury trial. 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.”
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.”
The prosecution filed a response to that motion on March 22 in which it addressed points that the defense raised and asked the court to deny the request for a new trial.
Judge Karren began the March 24 hearing shortly after 9 a.m. and Catterlin went through his motion for a new trial, addressing several of the points he made in further detail. He began by noting that the court needed to take into account statements made by the prosecution that could “inflame the jury.”
Most of his points referred to the testimony of a minor witness referred to as “Emma,” much of which he deemed “improper.”
“A jury already inherently wants to believe a child,” he said. “It’s already an uphill battle to have a fair trial.” He also felt that it was a “factual impossibility” that a rape of that witness occurred.
Prosecuting attorney Joshua Robinson responded by also reiterating arguments he made in the prosecution’s response filing, stating that Emma’s testimony helped the state demonstrate De La Garza’s opportunity and motive.
He also noted that the state is tasked with revealing the reliability of a witness to the jury, and that doing so in this case was even more important due to the lack of any DNA evidence. He also addressed the comments he made during his closing argument that the defense took issue with.
Prosecutor Joshua Robinson said that, in hindsight, he would have phrased his sentiments differently. But he also added that, after reading the trial transcript, they bothered him less. He stated that reading those words in context was important, adding that it was a “direct rebuttal to a defense argument.”
Just after 10 a.m., Catterlin briefly followed up on a few points before Judge Karren called a recess to consider the arguments.
De La Garza watched the hearing virtually and appeared on video, but was not asked to speak. He looked unrecognizable in comparison to his booking photo, with his dyed hair now shorter, uniformly dark, and brushed straight back. He also wore a pair of thick-rimmed glasses.
The hearing resumed at 10:46 a.m. and Karren proceeded to analyze each of the eight points raised by the defense in its motion, including citing relevant rulings in other cases. The judge went through those in exacting detail.
He cited Arkansas law that states that a verdict will not be overturned unless it is “clearly erroneous.”
“Closing arguments that require reversal are rare,” he added. “The state is allowed to fight fire with fire.”
Regarding Emma’s testimony, the judge saw no other options for how the state handled the witness.
“That’s the only way this case could have proceeded,” he observed. “There was no other way.”
He ultimately found that none of the defense’s points were grounds for a new trial. The defense told Judge Karren that it intends to appeal within 30 days.