After 36 years without a single death penalty court case, Faulkner County will now see its second death case within a year and a half of Scotty Ray Gardner's death verdict.
Joe Bernard Nowell, 51, faces capital murder and abuse of a corpse charges following 60-year-old William Ray Holt's brutal 2018 slaying.
Holt, a homeless man from Little Rock, was found dead under the East Fork Cadron Creek bridge along Highway 287 during the evening hours of July 24. A juvenile found Holt's body, with his throat "slit on both sides and his abdomen slayed open" shortly before 8 p.m. on the night in question. Authorities believe the man was out in the water for about 24 hours before being located.
During a November pretrial hearing, deputy prosecutor John Hout said the state had not yet waived its right to seek the death penalty against Nowell. On Thursday, Hout formally filed the aggravating circumstances associated with qualifying a capital case as a death penalty case, and a death trial was scheduled for early 2020.
In Arkansas, a defendant found guilty of capital murder can receive one of two punishments: life in prison without the possibility of parole or death. However, prosecutors cannot seek the death penalty in all capital cases.
"The death penalty is never an automatic option," Hout said during Scotty Gardner voire dire -- jury selection -- process.
Not only are prosecutors required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a capital murder defendant killed the victim premeditated and deliberately, but they must also prove there was at least one aggravating circumstance or factor that contributed to the alleged crime for the case to qualify as a death penalty case.
At 8:37 a.m. Thursday, a Notice of Aggravating Circumstances that was filed in Faulkner County Circuit Court states the capital case qualifies as a death case because the "capital murder was committed for pecuniary gain; and/or the capital murder was committed in an especially cruel or depraved manner."
During the Thursday morning hearing, Katherine S. Streett, who now represents Nowell, requested the previously set May 2019 jury trial be continued to a later date to give her more time to prepare for the death penalty case at hand. Streett was also Gardner's attorney.
"I think May is extremely optimistic," she said.
Hout did not object to the request, and Circuit Judge Charles "Ed" Clawson soon ruled the matter would be moved to January 2020.
Both the defense and prosecution will meet again in court on August 13 for a pretrial hearing prior to the two-week jury trial, which is set for Jan. 13-17 and will continue Jan. 21-24.
Online records show that Nowell was pinpointed as the suspect killer in this case after comparing his DNA to DNA that was extracted to a hand-rolled cigarette that was found at the crime scene in July. Prior to comparing the DNA samples, investigators learned Nowell had picked up 60-year-old Holt in Little Rock and was having him panhandle money for him locally.
Holt’s body was identified via a fingerprint scan at the Arkansas State Crime Lab on July 25. As the investigation continued, authorities learned the 60-year-old homeless man had been living with Nowell at a residence on Berry Gap Lane in eastern Faulkner County.
The victim’s body was discovered on a Tuesday evening. Nowell reportedly told authorities he last saw the 60-year-old the Sunday prior to his discovery in the creek.
While speaking with Eiss at the hospital, investigators learned evidence was burned at Nowell’s residence on Berry Gap Lane in the Eagle Township, which is about eight and a half miles from where Holt’s body was found.
Nowell previously told authorities he last saw Holt on July 22. When he initially spoke with sheriff’s deputies, he said he was saved during the church service that night and he and Holt got into an argument over Holt’s “drinking problem.”
According to Nowell’s statement, Holt packed all his belongings, including $700 and a red wallet, and left walking that night.
After speaking with others in the area, investigators learned Nowell and Holt had a close relationship.
“A neighbor of Mr. Nowell told investigators that Nowell put up a mail box for Mr. Holt, which we later found to be a requirement to get his Social Security benefits,” the affidavit reads in part. “In addition, we found that Mr. Nowell helped Holt open an Arvest Bank account in which Mr. Nowell was made power of attorney.”
FCSO also learned Nowell reportedly had a reputation for picking up homeless man and having them collect money for him.
Jessica Eiss, who is Nowell’s girlfriend, told police that Holt said he wanted to leave for Branson, Missouri, and that she and Nowell left to drop him off along Highway 65. However, she said the three never made it to Highway 65 before she and Nowell went back to Berry Gap Lane as Nowell attempted to destroy evidence linked to Holt’s death.
Holt, according to Eiss’ statement, wanted to go panhandle in Branson instead of collecting money for Nowell. As the three drove toward Highway 65 on the night in question, the pulled over by the East Fork Cadron Creek along Highway 287.
“Mr. Nowell and Mr. Holt then got out of the vehicle and walked down to the creek and sat on the bank,” Eiss recalled. “She stated that she had her phone and was looking down at her phone so she doesn’t know what happened but that Mr. Nowell came back and got in the vehicle along ... [and] was covered in blood. She stated that they went back to their residence and he rinsed the blood off of his arms using the water hose and then smashed her phone and burned the clothes he was wearing and her phone in a burn pile.”