LOCATION: Bentonville, Arkansas
DOCKET NO.: 86-130
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-1987)
LOWER COURT: Arkansas Supreme Court
CITATION: 483 US 44 (1987)
ARGUED: Mar 23, 1987
DECIDED: Jun 22, 1987
J. Steven Clark - on behalf of Respondent
James M. Luffman - on behalf of Petitioner
Facts of the case
Vickie Rock was charged with manslaughter for the death of her husband, Frank Rock. Vickie and Frank had argued after Frank refused to let Vickie eat pizza and prevented her from leaving the apartment to get something else to eat. As the fight escalated, Vickie picked up a handgun and at some point Frank received a fatal gunshot wound to the chest. The police arrived and arrested Vickie. Because Vickie was unable to recall the shooting in any detail, on the advice of her attorney, she submitted to hypnosis in an attempt to refresh her memory. During one session, Vickie recalled that her finger had not been on the trigger and the gun had discharged accidentally when Frank had grabbed her arm. A gun expert examined the gun and found that it was defective and prone to fire when dropped or hit, even without the trigger being pulled, supported this revelation.
Because an Arkansas rule of evidence prohibited the admittance of any evidence obtained through hypnosis, the trial court barred Vickie from testifying to her memory of the shooting because it had been “hypnotically refreshed.” She was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. Vickie appealed to the Supreme Court of Arkansas, which affirmed her conviction. The Supreme Court of Arkansas held that, in the absence of a general consensus on the accuracy of evidence obtained through hypnosis, case-by-case inquiry into the accuracy of the evidence would be too burdensome on courts. In this case, the exclusion of Vickie Rock’s hypnotically refreshed memory did not infringe on her constitutional rights because her right to testify in her own defense was only limited by generally applicable rules of evidence intended to exclude confusing or misleading evidence.
Does Arkansas’s blanket ban on all hypnotically refreshed testimony infringe on Vickie Rock’s Fourteenth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment right to testify on her own behalf?
Media for Rock v. Arkansas
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 23, 1987 in Rock v. Arkansas
William H. Rehnquist:
We'll hear argument now in Number 86-130, Vickie Lorene Rock v. Arkansas.
Mr. Luffman, you may proceed whenever you're ready.
James M. Luffman:
Thank you Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court: Frank Rock died on July 2nd, 1983.
Vickie Rock maintains that his death was caused by the accidental discharge of a Saturday night special pistol which fired when her husband grabbed her hand.
He was attempting to prevent her from leaving the house to get a hamburger.
The pistol was in her hand, she maintains, because her husband had become suddenly violent striking her and slamming her into a wall.
She thought it would keep him from hitting her again.
Vickie Rock went through the trauma of a fruitless wait for the ambulance she called and watching for the police while they began their investigation while her husband lay dying on the floor.
She was taken to jail before the ambulance arrived to pick up her unconscious husband and she learned of his death in a jail cell.
The evidence is that only Frank Rock and Vickie Rock were in the room when the gun discharged.
Frank Rock made no statement to the police before his death.
Almost a year later on June 25th, 1984, Vickie Rock was arraigned on a charge of manslaughter in the death of her husband.
Three months after her arraignment, Vickie Rock was still unable to recall some of the detail of the events that occurred between the time her husband slammed her against the wall and the time she went to the telephone to call for the ambulance, a matter of seconds.
Such amnesia is apparently not unusual for persons involved in violent confrontations but in her case it was not complete.
She remembered a great deal of detail from both before the gun discharged and after.
The record does not reflect what other methods were used by her lawyer to attempt to refresh her recollection of those violent moments.
But he finally employed a professional psychologist for the purpose of trying to refresh her memory with the use of hypnosis.
After two sessions with the psychologist she was able to recall much of what she knew but had forgotten.
The most important thing she was able to remember was that she never pulled the trigger.
That in fact, her finger was outside the trigger guard when the pistol discharged.
This revelation enabled her lawyer to employ an expert gunsmith, who after extensive testing of the weapon was able to testify that the pistol not only could but was quite likely to discharge in the manner related by petitioner, something that had previously been thought to be impossible.
As the case stood at this point a clear and probably close jury question was presented.
Did the gun discharge by accident in defect in design, or was it fired by petitioner in the course of a scuffle?
Believing Vickie Rock's testimony the jury could have acquitted her.
Disbelieving her they had almost no alternative but to convict.
The jury though never had the opportunity to make that choice.
Vickie Rock's testimony about what happened in those few seconds was suppressed by a pre-trial order which limited her testimony about those events to what she had told her psychologist prior to the first hypnotic session.
That order, more than any other ruling, took the decision away from the jury.
The jury was left with the mere sign--
Byron R. White:
What was it she was proposed to testify about?