Post conviction relief for murderer of Midway couple denied

The current effort by convicted murderer Nicholas Roos to obtain post conviction relief has failed.Circuit Judge Gordon Webb found Roos received effective assistance of counsel in spite of his major claim, set out in a Rule 37 Petition, his original defense lawyers had done a poor job of representing him.

The petition was filed by Roos shortly after he went to prison to begin serving his life sentence for killing an elderly Midway couple - Donald and LaDonna Rice - and burning their home along County Road 508 in early November 2015.

Roos was one of three young people, all in their 20’s, charged in the incident.

Roos pled guilty to charges of capital murder and arson on May 24th of last year and is currently an inmate in the Varner Unit of the state prison system.

In his ruling, Judge Webb wrote Roos received effective counsel and legal representation from the two attorneys from the State Public Defender Commission - Katherine Streett and Teri Chambers -- assigned to represent him.

In late March, a hearing lasting almost four hours on Roos’ petition was held in Baxter County Circuit Court. In his petition, Roos alleges he received inadequate legal representation from the two attorneys.

He contends, among other things, the attorneys did not investigate his claimed mental health problems and failed to develop a defense of mental disease and defect, despite the fact he had what he describes as “a history of mental health problems.”

In his testimony taken during the hearing, Roos spelled out his various problems, including drug use and suicide attempts. He said he had used marijuana since about the age of 13, had been drinking since age 9 and using what he described as “party drugs”.

Roos told the court he was able to control his drug and alcohol use until about three years ago when the woman he was living with, and the child they had together, left him. He said at that point he began using methamphetamine, opioids and “drinking to get drunk”.

Two of Roos’ friends took the stand and said he had changed dramatically after the break-up of his relationship, was paranoid and acting strangely.

Roos testified he told Streett and Chambers about his problems and believed they should have requested he be seen by a mental health professional but that his attorneys didn’t arrange an evaluation.

The two local attorneys appointed to represent Roos for the Rule 37 process - John Crain and Justin Downum - argued such an evaluation should have been done to determine if there was even a possibility that a mental disease or defect defense might have been mounted.

At one time, and unrelated to the Rice case, Roos was sent to a psychiatric facility in Batesville where he was diagnosed with paranoia, delusions, psychosis and as having no insight into his own behavior. Roos said he left the facility after four or five days at his request.

14th Judicial District Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Christopher Carter said the question to be answered was the state of Roos’s mental health on the day he shot and killed the Rice couple and burned down their home, not on problems he might have had in the past. Carter contended there had been no evidence presented in the Rule 37 process to suggest Roos was suffering a mental defect on the day of the crime.

Some new information in the Rice murder case did come out during the hearing - including the fact Donald Rice had soot in his lungs, indicating he was likely alive when Roos set the house ablaze. The court was also told Roos intended to rob someone on the day of the Rice murder to obtain cash to pay a lawyer to represent him with child custody problems.

Both Chambers and Streett, who have together handled more than 100 capital murder cases, testified that they did not seek a mental evaluation in order to mount a defense based on mental disease and defect because they did not believe -- based on substantial interactions with Roos -- there was any basis to do so.

Chambers said Roos’ claimed mental problems would, however, have been brought out as a mitigating factor during the sentencing phase if the case had gone to trial.

Both Streett and Chambers testified the evidence against Roos was “overwhelming”. The lawyers said they did advise him that given the evidence against him, a jury could well sentence him to death.

Crain asked Chambers what Roos had to lose by asking for a mental evaluation and she replied -- “his life.”

Both Streett and Chambers indicted Roos initiated the effort to work out a plea agreement and that they went over the agreement in detail prior to Roos pleading to the charges.

During the sentencing procedure on the capital murder and arson charges, Roos was asked if he was satisfied with the work Streett and Chambers had done and he replied in the affirmative. He was also asked multiple times if he had anything to say and replied no each time.

Judge Webb noted the court has carefully reviewed the entire court file and all of the pleadings and there is no evidence attorneys were deficient in any way in their representation of Roos.

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