A Faulkner County circuit judge will decide over the next two weeks whether a Pine Bluff teen will be tried as an adult in the 2018 strangulation death of Elvia Fragstein or if the case will be moved to juvenile court.
Robert Smith III was 16 years old when he and his older cousin allegedly abducted and killed the 72-year-old Wooster woman. Smith is now 17 years old and his attorney has asked Circuit Judge Troy B. Braswell Jr. to move the teen’s case to juvenile court because Smith currently faces a life sentence without the possibility of parole if found guilty.
The transfer request was made in April. Defense attorney Garfield W. Bloodman had also asked the court to consider dismissing the case because he felt it was unconstitutional that prosecutors were able to file the teen’s case in adult court.
Garfield said during a three-hour hearing Wednesday morning he felt the decision was “racist,” that it showed “favoritism,” and that it was unconstitutional.
The young teen is currently charged alongside Tacori D. Mackrell with capital murder, kidnapping, aggravated robbery and theft of property. Mackrell faces the death penalty and is set for trial later this year. Because of Smith’s age at the time of the alleged offense, he cannot be sentenced to death, per Arkansas law.
Stephen Erickson, who is deputy chief medical examiner at the Arkansas State Crime Lab, said on Wednesday that Fragstein’s death was “purposeful [and] forceful.”
Erickson testified as an expert in forensic pathology.
While on the stand, he said violent, prolonged assault and suffered from strangulation as well as blunt force trauma to her head and cervical spine.
The expert witness recalled Elvia Fragstein’s case being difficult and “challenging” to examine.
When he received her body last year at the Arkansas State Crime Lab, she had no blood left. Fragstein’s brain was gone and a significant amount of tissues were missing due to insect activity.
“The condition of her body deserved special attention,” Erickson said, adding that it was “particularly important [to note she was] found in Jefferson County and last seen in Faulkner County.”
Despite her case being a challenging one, Erickson said he was confident the Wooster woman was crushed.
Injuries to the 72-year-old’s neck showed multiple signs of “traumatic neck compressions,” he said.
Elvia was reported missing by her husband, Helmut, on July 7, 2018. Her body was later found off a rural road in Jefferson County on July 11, 2018.
For the time of year, Erickson said the amount of insect activity found in Elvia did not surprise him.
Senior deputy prosecutor John Hout questioned Erickson if the “crushing” blows to Elvia’s throat could have been caused by a kicking motion, referencing the allegations that the 72-year-old’s blood was found on Smith’s shoes. Erickson said a kicking motion would not have caused these injuries, but someone stomping on Elvia would have.
Bloodman questioned Erickson about whether injuries to Elvia’s ribs were caused by animals gnawing on her instead of blunt force trauma. However, the expert witness said he did not think that was a possibility.
The Wooster woman’s body weighed in at 100 pounds it was taken to the state crime lab. Her body was just under 5-feet long.
Erickson said it was clear the condition of her body was deteriorating due to the Arkansas heat and insect activity. While there likely were many animals roaming through the rural area Elvia’s body was found in, her eight broken ribs were not caused by a wild animal, he said.
“No rodents at her chest (or) neck,” he said. “You don’t get these kind of fractures from an animal feeding.”
Following the chief deputy medical examiner’s testimony, Bloodman pleaded with Braswell to drop the case. The young Pine Bluff teen’s attorney said there was nothing linking Smith to Elvia’s murder.
Carol Crews, 20th Judicial District prosecutor, disagreed.
The fact that Elvia was abducted in the middle of the day on a Saturday showed the seriousness behind the case, she said. More to that, it was alarming that the two teens in this case did not know Elvia prior to the incident.
After reviewing surveillance footage that showed Smith and his cousin walking around the Conway Commons shopping center on the day in question, Crews said it was clear the teens were set out to find someone. The attack, she said, was targeted, adding that at one point, Mackrell had peered into the front windows at the Children’s Place.
“They were walking around hunting for someone,” she said. “They didn’t talk to anyone in the stores and could be seen on video peering into store windows. They saw her by herself.”
While the 17-year-old’s attorney said the fact that since his incarceration Smith obtaining his GED showed he had the initiative to do better and be rehabilitated.
Crews said this move helped show Smith was able to think on a mature level and should be held accountable by being tried as an adult.
Smith’s case was unique in that he had family members that watched out for and cared for him, yet he still committed “a violent, heinous” act, she said.
Braswell said he needed time to review the nearly 13 pages of notes he made upon listing to testimony given during the transfer hearing.
Testimony given was “detailed and extensive,” he said.
Before ending Wednesday’s hearing, Braswell denied Bloodman’s request to dismiss the case.
A ruling as to whether the case will be tried in adult court or be transferred to the juvenile division will be made “by close of business” on July 19.