A North Little Rock man convicted of killing his grandfather and mutilating the corpse is entitled to a new trial because of contradictory instructions given to the jurors who found him guilty, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Sean Fincham was convicted in Pulaski County Circuit Court of first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse and sentenced to life in prison in the January 2011 slaying of his 65-year-old grandfather, Dennie Gregory. Fincham was 24 when the killing occurred.
Fincham testified during his trial that Gregory had molested him as a child and that he killed Gregory during an argument that began after Fincham discovered that Gregory had been molesting Fincham’s two children. Prosecutors disputed the claims of molestation.
Prosecutors said Fincham beat Gregory to death with a ball peen hammer, made holes in his body with a drill and flayed his genitals with a pair of pliers.
The trial judge instructed jurors that they could find Fincham guilty of first- or second-degree murder or manslaughter with the extenuating circumstance of extreme emotional disturbance, if they believed he was guilty of the slaying. The jury opted for first-degree murder.
Fincham argued on appeal that the judge told the jury it could find Fincham guilty of manslaughter if it found there was reasonable doubt that he had committed murder, but the jury also was told that a finding of extreme emotional disturbance as an extenuating circumstance only applies to a defendant who has committed murder, so the instructions made a manslaughter conviction impossible.
Fincham acknowledged that the judge gave standard jury instructions, but he argued that in his case the standard instructions were not sufficient and that the judge should have given the alternative instructions the defense proffered during the trial, which the judge rejected.
In its 5-2 decision Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed.
Justice Cliff Hoofman wrote in the majority opinion, “The jury was … placed in an impossible scenario — it was instructed not to consider the offense of manslaughter unless it had reasonable doubt as to murder, but it was also instructed not to find guilt on manslaughter unless Fincham had committed murder.”
Hoofman urged the court’s Committee on Criminal Jury Instructions to consider revising the standard jury instructions relating to manslaughter as a lesser-included offense.
Joining Hoofman in the majority opinion were Chief Justice Jim Hannah and Justices Donald Corbin, Josephine Linker Hart and Courtney Hudson Goodson.
Justices Karen Baker and Paul Danielson dissented. Baker wrote for the minority that the instructions proffered by the defense would not have corrected what Fincham claimed was an error because they would not have changed the instruction regarding the order in which the jury was to consider offenses.
Baker also wrote that the jury was “instructed to consider the instructions as a whole, not singling out one instruction to the exclusion of others. Jurors are presumed to comprehend and follow court instructions.”