The Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a case where a man was convicted in the stabbing death of his ex-wife in a Branson motel room.
Stewart Hopkins was sentenced to life in prison without parole and a concurrent term of 25 years in 2012. At issue in the high court is whether public defenders responded within time limits to argue that Hopkins trial lawyer was ineffective.
Representing the state, attorney Christine Lesicko said the public defender’s office failed to fulfill its obligation after receiving the case. “Whenever the public defender gets the case they are appointed, and then the time limits start.”
Arguing for Hopkins, attorney Amy Bartholow claimed the public defender operated appropriately. “I would ask this court to deem it timely filed and reach the merits of the case.”
The public defender claims the trial lawyer failed to object to the admission of phone calls Hopkins made in jail where he mentioned his prior criminal history. The defender contends those calls prejudiced the jury against Hopkins.
The Southern District Appeals Court in Springfield ruled the public defenders did not respond within time limits and ordered the case sent to the Supreme Court.
Following his conviction, Hopkins filed a motion in 2014 seeking a decision in his favor with an affidavit in indigency (meaning he couldn’t afford legal representation). The lower court then entered an “order of notification” informing the public defender that Hopkins had filed his motion.
The Supreme Court will also consider whether the “order of notification” is actually an appointment of counsel, or just a simple announcement. It decision will determine when time limits started for the public defender to respond.
After hearing arguments Tuesday, the high court will pass down its ruling at a later date.
According to court records, Hopkins met his ex-wife, Stacey Birmingham, at a Branson motel where Birmingham paid for a room in cash.
Birmingham brought several legal documents, including a divorce decree and a handwritten document entitled “last will and testament”. She also brought a fishing knife. Hopkins brought a knife as well because he had a feeling that something was not right.
According to a court document filed by Hopkins public defender, they both took overdose amounts of their psychiatric medication (both had prescriptions) and drank large amounts of alcohol.
According to a Branson police report, Hopkins said he and Birmingham began arguing over custody of their 13-year-old daughter. During the argument, Birmingham cut Hopkins with a knife. Hopkins then took the knife from Birmingham and threw it out of the motel room before he removed a three-and-a-half inch folding lock-blade knife from his pants pocket.
A court document says Hopkins cut Birmingham in the neck area three times with the knife. She died sometime that evening.