Conviction, death penalty overturned for confessed killer Eric Mickelson

Conviction, death penalty overturned for confessed killer Eric Mickelson
Sentenced to life in prison: Beverly Arthur, 45 (Source: Caddo Correctional Center)
Sentenced to life in prison: Beverly Arthur, 45 (Source: Caddo Correctional Center)
Killed: Retired painting contractor Charles Martin
Killed: Retired painting contractor Charles Martin

SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - A confessed killer will get a new trial in Caddo Parish, now that the Louisiana Supreme Court has thrown out his conviction and death sentence.

Eric Mickelson was sentenced to death in August 2011 following his conviction on first degree murder in the death of of Charles Martin, an 86-year-old retired painting contractor whose body was found dismembered and scattered around various parts of Caddo Parish in 2007.

Martin is believed to have been strangled to death when Mickelson and a female accomplice allegedly broke into his home.

Mickelson, now 45, confessed to Martin's murder following his arrest, and to killing Kristi O'Pry 11 years earlier. He was the last person seen with O'Pry before she disappeared in July of 1996. Mickelson told detectives he strangled O'Pry, then disposed of her body in a pond on his Woolworth Road property. He was later charged with second-degree murder in that case.

The family of O'Pry thought that everything was settled but Thursday's news is forcing them to revisit the tragedy.

"I wasn't expecting it at all, it's just kind of unbelievable," said Jordan O'Pry.

Jordan O'Pry spent most of her life wondering what happened to her mother, Kristi O'Pry. "My mother was murdered a month before my fourth birthday, so naturally growing up people ask you what does your mom do? What does your dad do?" Questions that O'Pry could never answer until 2011 when Mickelson was convicted of killing her mother.

She shutters at the thought that he could possibly get off death row.

"He even said that he hoped that our family would never heal," said O'Pry.

Despite the ruling, O'Pry's faith is not faltering. "We have complete confidence that things will work out in my mother's favor, we believe that justice will continue to be served."

Mickelson's former girlfriend, Beverly Arthur, was also charged in Martin's murder. Prosecutors said she had been taking Martin's money to feed their drug habits, and the motive for the killing was to rob the elderly man to keep him from going to police and to steal more money for drugs. Arthur was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty in April 2013 in order to avoid the possibility of the death penalty.

Mickelson appealed his conviction, arguing that the district court failed to allow the defense to exercise a peremptory challenge and excuse a prospective juror from the capital case because he would not consider intoxication as a mitigating factor in the sentencing phase.

Part of Mickelson's defense was that he was high on cocaine at the time of the murder, and under the law, intoxication "shall be considered" as a mitigating circumstance.

Caddo District Court Judge Scott Chrichton denied the defense's request to bring juror Roy Johnson back for further questioning in order to challenge the inclusion of Johnson as a juror, finding "no basis in my view for a cause challenge on Mr. Johnson, none." Crichton also reminded counsel that it is "inappropriate to take one isolated out-of-context statement of one prospective juror and micro-dissect it to the point of reaching an absurd result."

Chrichton went on to say that, based on Johnson's testimony and demeanor during the jury selection process, "I am convinced he would be extremely capable of being fair and impartial and neutral and would give [the defendant] a fair trial."

The Supreme Court ruling issued Wednesday finds that Johnson did not make just "one isolated out-of-context statement," but that he "stated unequivocally on the record not once, but five times, that he would not consider evidence of intoxication as a mitigating factor in his determination of the appropriate sentence."

"Rather than retract from that statement, the last time he was questioned on the subject, he indicated that, not only would he not consider intoxication as a mitigating circumstance, he 'would give the guy the death penalty if he was on drugs and alcohol and go out and kill somebody.' And he emphasized, 'Yes, I would do that,' repeating his lack of equivocation." according to the majority opinion. "This final response to questioning indicates not just an unwillingness to consider intoxication as a mitigating factor in the sentencing determination, but a predisposition to vote for the death penalty if drugs or alcohol fueled the crime."

In the majority opinion, the La. Supreme Court concluded that that the juror, Roy Johnson, "stated several times that he could not consider alcohol or drug induced intoxication as a mitigating circumstance in deciding the appropriate sentence, with his final words indicating he would impose the death penalty if drugs or alcohol fueled the crime. When a prospective juror holding such an opinion is not excused for cause, and the defense exhausts its peremptory challenges, as occurred here, there is reversible error."

While the Louisiana Supreme Court agreed with that argument, they did not agree with Mickelson's claim that there was insufficient evidence that there was intent to kill Martin.

There is no word yet on a new trial date.

Copyright 2014 KSLA. All rights reserved.