Collins v. State

In 1972, with the Furman v. Georgia case, the U.S. Supreme Court suspended use of the death penalty throughout the nation because it found the capital punishment system to be unconstitutional due to arbitrary enforcement. The Furman decision allowed individual states to revise their capital punishment statutes in order to eliminate the subjectivity of the death penalty. Arkansas revised its statutes in March 1973, and in the 1977 Collins v. State case, the Arkansas Supreme Court defended these newly revised statutes.

In 1974, Carl Albert Collins was convicted of the murder of John Welch, his employer. Collins first attacked Welch’s wife, Gertrude, and then shot Welch. Collins left both for dead, stole Welch’s wallet, and took his truck. Though John Welch died, Gertrude survived and was able to testify against Collins. Aside from her testimony, Collins was also tied to the murder through forensic evidence found at the scene and in the recovered, stolen vehicle.

Collins appealed his sentence repeatedly. However, Arkansas’s newly revised capital punishment statutes defined both aggravating and mitigating circumstances in order to guide the jury during the sentencing process. Because the courts found three aggravating and only one mitigating circumstance in Collins’s case, they upheld his death sentence at each appeal hearing.

In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court validated the revised statutes of Georgia, Texas, and Florida in the Gregg v. Georgia case and reinstated capital punishment for the nation. The three accepted states served as the model for other states that wished to resume executions. Collins appealed his case once again and asserted that his sentence was invalid. He argued that Arkansas’s revised statutes did not meet the constitutional standards as defined by the Gregg decision since Arkansas—unlike Georgia, Florida, and Texas—had not created a mandatory appeal system for capital cases. A mandatory appeal system required a state Supreme Court to review all cases in which the defendant received a death sentence regardless of the defendant’s wishes. Optional appeal systems, such as the system that Arkansas retained, reviewed capital cases only when prompted by the defendant. Collins believed that optional appeal systems were unconstitutional under the Gregg decision, which emphasized due process.

On March 7, 1977, the Arkansas Supreme Court heard Collins’s appeal and ultimately dismissed his claim. A mandatory appeal system, the justices reasoned, was not a constitutional requirement because the U.S. Supreme Court had not specifically stated it as one. Furthermore, the court dismissed Collins’s claim that, because a minority group of Supreme Court justices had acknowledged the benefits of a mandatory appeal system, Arkansas was required to instate one. Arkansas Supreme Court justices recalled that the Gregg decision called only for opportunity for meaningful appeal and argued that Arkansas fulfilled this requirement. In support of this argument, the justices pointed to the legal requirement for a judge to inform the defendant of his right to appeal as well as a defendant’s ability to give reasons as to why his death sentence should be reduced to a prison term. The justices also stated that, though the state lacked a mandatory appeal system, it was improbable that any death row inmate would be executed without having appealed his sentence. For final support of their defense of Arkansas’s capital punishment statutes, the justices pointed to Gilmore v. Utah (1976), a post-Furman case in which Utah had upheld the defendant’s right to waive appeal. Therefore, the justices argued, mandatory appeals could not be constitutionally required because no one had challenged Gilmore’s right to waive his appeal.

The majority of the justices believed Collins’s appeal to be unfounded. However, three justices disagreed. Justice George Rose Smith believed that Arkansas was unwise in its decision to remain without a mandatory appeal system because an optional appeal system relied on the initiative of the defendants, who could not be expected to understand the legal avenues available to them and may not have the ability to obtain a good defense team. Justices Frank Holt and Darrell Hickman joined Smith’s concerns, and Hickman elaborated by pointing out that Arkansas had little regulation over capital punishment procedures as a whole.

The majority decision of the Arkansas Supreme Court was to dismiss Collins’s appeal and uphold his death sentence. In response, Collins attempted to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but his appeal was dismissed without hearing. The U.S. Supreme Court’s dismissal of Collins’s case did not indicate support for Arkansas’s ruling, nor did it indicate support for Collins’s claim. The dismissal was neutral and solely reflected on the U.S. Supreme Court’s inability to hear each case presented to it. Though Collins’s Gregg decision appeal was dismissed, his death sentence was later reduced to life without parole through a different appeal.

Collins’s appeal and the Arkansas Supreme Court’s dismissal of it set a precedent for the next twenty years of Arkansas capital punishment history. Though all other states did implement mandatory appeal systems, Arkansas retained its optional appeal system until 2001. In 2001, the Arkansas Supreme Court amended its “Rules of Procedure—Criminal” to include a mandatory appeal system for all capital cases.

For additional information:
Collins v. State, 548 SW 2d 106, Ark S.Ct. (1977).

“Rules of Appellate Procedure—Criminal.” Arkansas Judiciary. http://courts.state.ar.us/rules/appellate_procedure_criminal/index.cfm (accessed March 3, 2011).

Wade, Wyman R., Jr. “Collins v. State: Arkansas’ Death Penalty Gets New Life.” Arkansas Law Review 31.719 (1978): 719–729.

Laura Choate
Conway, Arkansas

Last Updated: 10/05/2018

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