Originally created 12/02/99

Defendant enters plea of innocent



A Trenton, S.C., man charged in an alleged murder-for-hire plot pleaded innocent Wednesday in Arkansas.

The arraignment of a co-defendant, however, was postponed because she seemed unable to understand what was happening in the courtroom.

James Arnold Baughman, 42, pleaded not guilty in Benton County (Ark.) Circuit Court to two counts of capital murder in the Oct. 30 slayings of Joanne Kneece and her ex-husband James Floyd Suggs in Pea Ridge, Ark.

But Rose Ellen Cushman, 43, of Windsor, S.C., appeared to have difficulty walking into the courtroom and speaking during the hearing. Authorities said her condition was because of seizure medication she received at Benton County Jail.

Circuit Judge David Clinger said Ms. Cushman "does not appear to understand what we are doing today. Her eyes have been closed during parts of the proceeding and she appears to be in a very confused state of mind."

Ms. Cushman's attorney, Deputy Public Defender Theresa Nazario, said her mental state was caused by the wrong medication. A neurologist in South Carolina has been treating Ms. Cushman for seizures, Ms. Nazario said.

According to witnesses at the hearing, Ms. Cushman appeared unsteady on her feet, distraught and distracted.

The judge asked Ms. Cushman if she understood what had occurred at the hearing. She replied with slurred words: "Only that I shouldn't be here."

Ms. Nazario and Ms. Cushman's other lawyer, Charles Duell, told Judge Clinger their client intended to plead not guilty.

The judge called for a recess and allowed Ms. Cushman's lawyers to explain to her the purpose of the arraignment. But the judge determined Ms. Cushman was incoherent and ordered the arraignment rescheduled for Dec. 9.

Judge Clinger said he might order a mental evaluation of Ms. Cushman because of her disorientation during the hearing.

Ms. Cushman received the drug Dilantin while in jail, Ms. Nazario said. Her South Carolina neurologist planned to contact the jail and inform officials of the correct seizure medication, Ms. Nazario said.

Mr. Baughman and Ms. Cushman were arrested Nov. 1 in Benton County. According to court documents, Ms. Cushman told police she and Mr. Baughman were hired by Etheridge Kneece, 60, of Edgefield County to kill Mrs. Kneece and Mr. Suggs for $30,000 to $40,000.

Mr. Kneece was arrested Nov. 4 at his Edgefield County home on a Benton County warrant charging him with two counts of capital murder. While he awaits an extradition hearing, he is jailed at Edgefield County Detention Center.

Ms. Cushman and Mr. Baughman are scheduled to be tried together. Lawyers for Mr. Baughman, Brad Karren and Tim Morris, said they might file a motion for separate trials next year.

No trial date has been set for Mr. Baughman and Ms. Cushman. An extradition hearing for Mr. Kneece has not been scheduled.

Reports from The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas were used in this article.

Reach Mark Mathis at (706) 823-3227 or marmathis@yahoo.com.