LITTLE ROCK — A Pulaski County circuit judge erred in dismissing a death-row inmate’s petition alleging that he had ineffective counsel at his trial, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The court ordered a new hearing for Andrew Engram, now 59, who was condemned to die in 1999 for raping and killing Laura White, a security guard who worked at a North Little Rock mall.
In September 2006, after a series of unsuccessful appeals, Engram filed a petition arguing that he could not be executed because he was mentally retarded and that he received ineffective counsel from his court-appointed trial lawyer.
In its unanimous opinion Thursday, the Supreme Court said the petition “inexplicably languished in the circuit court for almost six years” before Circuit Judge Barry Sims dismissed it in April 2012 without ever having conducted a hearing on it.
Sims ruled that the petition was not filed in a timely manner.
Engram argued that a lawyer who formerly represented him during his appeals, Lea Ellen Fowler, missed a deadline to file a petition and then covered for her mistake by telling a judge that there were no grounds to support a petition alleging ineffective counsel, also known as a Rule 37 petition.
Attached to Engram’s latest appeal is a statement by Little Rock lawyer Jeff Rosenzweig, who said that lawyer Craig Lambert, who at the time was romantically involved with Fowler, had told him that Fowler missed the deadline to file a petition for Engram. Rosenzweig said he later was in court on an unrelated matter when he heard Fowler tell a judge that she would not pursue Rule 37 relief.
“This information … is enough to give rise to a question of whether there is good cause for Engram to’s failure to timely file a Rule 37 petition,” Justice Donald Corbin wrote in the Supreme Court’s opinion.
The high court sent the case back to circuit court for a hearing on whether Engram had good cause to file the petition after the deadline had passed.