Iowa Supreme Court opens door to ‘actual innocence’ claims following guilty pleas

By: Rox Laird on March 27th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a person who pleaded guilty to a crime has a right under the Iowa Constitution to later claim that he or she is, in fact, innocent based on newly discovered evidence.

The Court, in a 4-3 ruling handed down March 23, overturned prior Iowa decisions that limited actual-innocence claims following a guilty plea to only those that attack the constitutional or procedural validity of the guilty plea. With this ruling, a defendant may assert actual innocence based on evidence unrelated to the validity of the plea itself.

The decision in Schmidt v. State of Iowa written by Justice David Wiggins was joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Daryl Hecht and Brent Appel.

The chief justice filed a separate opinion concurring with the judgment. “The process of justice must always be fair,” Cady wrote. “This case stands tall as the embodiment of this fundamental principle of law. It is a substantial step forward in our constitutional march to become better. Innocent people should always have a forum to prove their innocence. I fully concur in the opinion of the Court.”

Justices Thomas Waterman, Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager dissented. “Today’s decision will have bad consequences,” Waterman wrote in his dissenting opinion, “including fewer plea bargains, renewed turmoil for victims and their families years after the crime, and a flood of [post-conviction relief] applications.”

Jacob Schmidt pleaded guilty to assault with intent to commit sexual abuse, in part on the basis of the testimony of the victim, his younger half-brother. Seven years later, the half-brother recanted his testimony, saying Schmidt had not attempted to sexually abuse him. The Woodbury County District Court dismissed Schmidt’s post-conviction appeal, citing Iowa Supreme Court precedent.

The Iowa Supreme Court’s decision in Schmidt’s appeal has been in the making for more than a year. It was first argued in February 2017 but held over to be reargued this term. Meanwhile, the Court asked the parties to submit additional briefs focusing on several questions, including what standard should apply if a guilty plea does not always bar an actual-innocence claim.

The Iowa Supreme Court has historically stressed the finality of a criminal conviction based on a guilty plea that is made knowingly and intelligently and with assistance of counsel. In a 1990 decision, the Court said “notions of newly discovered evidence simply have no bearing on a knowing and voluntary admission of guilt.”

But the Court pointed to recent evidence that innocent people do, in fact, plead guilty to crimes they did not commit, citing a National Registry of Exonerations report that, in 2016, 74 convicted criminals who had pleaded guilty were subsequently exonerated.

“Pleading guilty does not automatically mean the defendant is actually guilty,” Wiggins wrote. “Sometimes, an innocent defendant is choosing the lesser of two evils: pleading guilty despite his or her actual innocence because the odds are stacked up against him or her, or going to trial with the risk of losing and the prospect of receiving a harsher sentence.”

With that in mind, the Court said it was time to open the door to allow those who plead guilty to appeal their convictions based on new evidence. “It is time that we refuse to perpetuate a system of justice that allows actually innocent people to remain in prison,” Wiggins wrote, “even those who profess guilt despite their actual innocence.”

To do that, the Court looked to the Iowa Constitution, which in Article 1 Section 9 says “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and in Article 1 Section 17 prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.

“Holding a person who has committed no crime in prison strikes the very essence of the constitutional guarantee of substantive due process,” Wiggins wrote, and punishing a person who is actually innocent is cruel and unusual.

In order to succeed on a claim of actual innocence, the Court said the applicant must show by “clear and convincing evidence that, despite the evidence of guilt supporting the conviction, no reasonable fact finder could convict the applicant of the crimes for which the sentencing court found the applicant guilty in light of all the evidence, including the newly discovered evidence.”

In Schmidt’s case, the Iowa Supreme Court did not take a position on his claim of innocence based on the recanted witness testimony. Rather, it sent the case back to the District Court for further proceedings, as “both parties are entitled to their day in court to litigate their positions under the new standard we have adopted today.”

“Only after the parties develop a record in a summary proceeding can the court decide if a genuine issue of material fact exists,” Wiggins wrote. “If it does, then a trial may be necessary to resolve Schmidt’s claim.”


Iowa Supreme Court’s September lineup: 26 cases on the calendar with 15 oral arguments

By: Rox Laird on September 11th, 2017

The Iowa Supreme Court begins its 2017-18 term Sept. 13 with a calendar packed with oral arguments over five days and two road trips to hear arguments outside the Judicial Branch Building.

The court has scheduled to hear arguments in 15 cases in September, and 11 cases will be submitted without oral arguments. (Go to the Supreme Court’s website for a complete list of the cases on the September argument calendar.)

Following are brief backgrounds on several cases of interest. Watch this site for more detailed previews in select cases ahead of the argument days.

Withdrawing a guilty plea

Schmidt v. State of Iowa (Sept. 13): Jacob Lee Schmidt seeks to withdraw his guilty plea to charges of intent to commit sex abuse and incest, and now argues he is actually innocent after his accuser recanted his testimony.

This case was argued and submitted to the court in February but held over for reargument this term. The court asked the parties to submit additional briefs focusing on several questions, among them: What standard should apply if a guilty plea does not always bar an actual-innocence claim? How does the district court account for the statute of limitations, the type of evidence of actual innocence and the applicability of the four-part test for newly discovered evidence established by the court in 2016, or the test established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995?

See our earlier post on this case before it was argued last term and a recap of the oral argument.

Legality of traffic-enforcement cameras

City of Cedar Rapids v. Leaf, and Behm, et al. v. City of Cedar Rapids and Gatso USA (Sept. 20): Among the issues raised in these two appeals: Do traffic citations generated by automated traffic cameras violate the due process, equal protection and privileges and immunities provisions of the U.S. and Iowa constitutions? Did the city unconstitutionally delegate core police functions to a private contractor to install and operate the speed cameras? Did the city have clear and convincing evidence of a speeding violation? Does the city’s ordinance unlawfully grant jurisdiction to an administrative board or hearing officer?

Juvenile criminal sentences

The court is again asked to revisit the issue of juvenile sentencing in light of a string of U.S. Supreme Court and Iowa Supreme Court decisions regarding long prison sentences for crimes committed by juveniles. Three cases are on the argument calendar for September:

State v. White (Sept. 13; non-oral): Khasif Rasheed White appeals his mandatory prison sentence arguing the trial judge erred in ruling on his resentencing in light of the court’s 2014 decision in State v. Lyle that the district court must hold a special hearing focusing on the factors unique to the offender before sentencing a juvenile defendant to mandatory minimum prison sentence.

In the Interest of T.H., Minor Child (Sept. 13): The appellant – who was 14 at the time of the offense – argues that being placed on the sex-abuse registry is cruel and unusual punishment for a juvenile adjudicated as delinquent for a crime that would trigger the registry requirement for an adult.

State v. Zarte (Sept. 14): Rene Zarte argues that a sentencing statute amended in light of the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in State v. Lyle, which imposed limits on mandatory minimum sentences for juvenile offenders, is unconstitutional because it mandates that sentencing courts consider improper sentencing factors for juveniles and removes discretion from trial courts to prescribe individualized sentences for juvenile offenders.

Fourth Amendment

State v. Ingram (Sept. 19 – Hoover High School). Bion Blake Ingram appeals his conviction for possession of methamphetamine, arguing the trial court should have excluded evidence obtained from the search of the contents of a car he was driving. Police searched the vehicle to inventory the contents prior to impounding the vehicle and found a bag containing illegal drugs. Ingram, who was borrowing the car, said the bag was not his nor was he aware of it contents.

State v. Brown (Sept. 20): Danielle Brown appeals her conviction of possession of marijuana, arguing the evidence obtained from a search of her purse should have been excluded at trial. Police discovered the marijuana in a search of her purse, which was near her on the floor of a room she and several other people were found in when police executed a search warrant. Brown was not named in the warrant.

State v. Scheffert (Sept. 14; non-oral): Michael Scheffert appeals his conviction of possession of marijuana arguing the police stop was illegal because he was stopped for driving in a county park after the 10:30 p.m. closing when there were no signs posted identifying it as a park or stating a closing time.

Removal of a county attorney

State v. Watkins (Sept. 14): Abraham Watkins appeals his removal by the Van Buren District Court from his elected position of Van Buren county attorney for misconduct or maladministration by engaging in sexual harassment. Watkins argues his removal was illegal because it was initiated by the Van Buren Board of Supervisors, who are not authorized by statute to file a petition to remove a public official from office. Watkins also argues that it was not proved for purposes of removal that he committed sexual harassment with “evil” or “corrupt” intent.

Employment, attorney-client privilege

Fenceroy v. Gelita USA et al. (Sept. 15 – Iowa City): Defendants in this employment discrimination and harassment case argue on interlocutory appeal that the trial court incorrectly overruled their motion for an order to protect privileged attorney-client communication and work product. The district court ruled that the attorneys waived their right to the privilege in asserting a defense strategy that put the disputed attorney-client and work-product information an issue in the trial. In the alternative, the defendants argue that the trial court should have considered whether other means exist to obtain the information.

Inheritance taxes

Tyler and Alcorn v. Iowa Department of Revenue (Sept. 20): Paula Tyler and Mark Alcorn argue that Iowa’s inheritance-tax law that creates two classes of stepchildren violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution. State law defines stepchild as “the child of a person who was married to the decedent at the time of the decedent’s death, or the child of a person to whom the decedent was married, which person died during the marriage to the decedent.” If the natural parent dies during the marriage, the stepchildren’s inheritance from the stepparent is exempt from inheritance taxes. If the marriage if their parent to the stepparent ends in divorce, the stepchildren pay the interitance tax. This, distinction between two similarly situated individuals, the appellants argue, is unconstitutional.


2016-17 Iowa Supreme Court status report: 96 down; 21 to go

By: Rox Laird on June 1st, 2017

Tomorrow the Iowa Supreme Court is expected to hand down two decisions, which will bring to 96 the number of cases disposed of in the first nine months of the 2016-17 term.

After the release of tomorrow’s decisions, 21 submitted cases will remain to be decided.

That means the Court is on track to hand down a total of 117 decisions (including 17 lawyer discipline cases) when the term ends in four weeks. That is on par for the Court, which typically decides about 105 cases each term.

A sign that the justices may be struggling with a case is the length of time between oral argument and a decision. Four cases argued in September remain undecided.

Those four cases include a challenge to a drunken-boating prosecution that’s been before the court for two years and a constitutional question in the long-running legal battle between former Gov. Terry Branstad and the former Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner.

Following are some noteworthy cases in the pipeline (headlines following case titles contain links to our earlier posts about these cases):

State v. Pettijohn“Will Iowa Court chart a new course in boating case?”

Godfrey v. State of Iowa, et al.: “Can Iowa courts create damage claims for constitutional violations?”

State v. Martinez“Does federal immigration policy preempt Iowa’s criminal laws?”

Brakke v.Iowa Department of Natural Resources: “Did DNR go too far in protecting deer from chronic wasting disease?”

Schmidt v. State“Can you claim ‘actual innocence’ after pleading guilty to a crime?”

State v. Plain“Is it possible to guarantee racial balance on Iowa juries?”

State v. Shorter; State v. Russell“Homicide victim pummeled by 15 people; does it matter which one(s) delivered the deadly blows?”

State v. Roby; State v. Majors: “Court asked to go further on juvenile sentences” [Note: A third juvenile sentencing case discussed in this post, State v. Graham, was decided May 25.]


2016-17 Iowa Supreme Court status report: 69 down; 49 to go

By: Rox Laird on March 23rd, 2017

Tomorrow the Iowa Supreme Court is expected to hand down one decision, which will bring to 69 the number of cases disposed of in the first seven months of the 2016-17 term.

After the release of tomorrow’s decision, 43 submitted cases will remain to be decided, and six more cases are set to be argued or submitted to the court without oral argument by the middle of April.

That means the Court is on track to hand down a total of 118 decisions (including 16 lawyer discipline cases) when the term ends in three months and one week. That is on par for the Cady Court, which typically decides about 105 cases each term.

A sign that the justices may be struggling with a case is the length of time between oral argument and a decision. Fourteen cases argued in September and October 2016, the first two months of this term, remain undecided.

Those 14 include a challenge to a drunken-boating prosecution that’s been before the court for two years and a constitutional question in the long-running legal battle between the governor and the former Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner.

Following are some noteworthy cases in the pipeline (headlines following case titles contain links to our earlier posts about these cases):

State v. Pettijohn: “Will Iowa Court chart a new course in boating case?”

Godfrey v. State of Iowa, et al.: “Can Iowa courts create damage claims for constitutional violations?”

Estate of Mercedes Gottschalk v. Pomeroy Care Center v. State of Iowa: “Must the State protect public from released sex offenders?”

State v. Martinez: “Does federal immigration policy preempt Iowa’s criminal laws?”

Brakke v.Iowa Department of Natural Resources: “Did DNR go too far in protecting deer from chronic wasting disease?”

Schmidt v. State: “Can you claim ‘actual innocence’ after pleading guilty to a crime?”

State v. Plain: “Is it possible to guarantee racial balance on Iowa juries?”

State v. Shorter; State v. Russell: “Homicide victim pummeled by 15 people; does it matter which one(s) delivered the deadly blows?”

State v. Roby; State v. Majors; State v. Graham: “Court asked to go further on juvenile sentences”


Iowa Supreme Court oral argument recap: Should courts keep a lid on the box?

By: Rox Laird on February 14th, 2017

Lawyers arguing a case before the Iowa Supreme Court Tuesday presented sharply contrasting views of justice: One view is that denying an innocent defendant the right to appeal is a miscarriage of justice; the other view is that the interest of justice in finality is not served by opening the door to appeals on specious claims of innocence.

The appeal was brought by Jacob Lee Schmidt who argues that he should have a hearing to withdraw his guilty plea for sexual abuse 11 years ago because the complaining witness has since recanted his testimony. (See our earlier post for more background on this appeal.)

All seven justices peppered the lawyers Tuesday with questions suggesting they struggle with the competing views of justice presented in this case.

Justice Thomas Waterman initiated the questioning by noting that recantations – where witnesses later say they testified falsely – are viewed with suspicion, and often happen after the accused leaves prison and within families in sex abuse cases.

Justice Daryl Hecht: Is a recantation newly discovered evidence?

Defendant’s counsel Martha Lucey, assistant appellate defender in the State Appellate Defender’s Office, said in this case it is a claim of actual innocence: “I didn’t do it.”

Justice Edward Mansfield: When there is a guilty plea, there is no trial. If you win the right to post-conviction relief, you have a trial 11 years later. You open the door to something that happens 11 years later. The State has to go back to prove its case. Doesn’t that open the door kind of wide?

Justice David Wiggins: At trial, the government must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Here, the only evidence is recanted testimony. How does the State make its case if there is no complaining witness?

Waterman: With a guilty plea, the State’s work is done.

Lucey: If the person is factually innocent, that is a miscarriage of justice.

Justice Bruce Zager: I disagree. Recantation is not the same as actual innocence. Recantation is really unique. I don’t know how you get to actual innocence with a recantation.

Justice Brent Appel: People plead guilty all the time due to fear of severe sanctions, and later DNA shows they are innocent. That’s a plus on your side. On the negative side, recantations are rife. The real question is what gatekeeping role does this court have in post-conviction relief? Always? Sometimes? Never?

Lucey: Not never. When you have newly discovered evidence, require a hearing. Either the evidence presented in a post-conviction relief proceeding meets the standard of proof or it does not.

Sheryl Soich, the assistant attorney general arguing for the State, said the Court should consider that a guilty plea puts a lid on the box. There is no reopening the case.

Appel: You really don’t want to go there, do you? It is hard for me to swallow that someone with actual innocence doesn’t get a chance to prove that in court.

Soich: Finality in criminal prosecutions serves the interest of justice.

Wiggins: In Illinois, people are being let out of prison left and right. What’s wrong with the State allowing them to make their case?

Soich: Not when they waived the right to challenge that evidence in the first place.

Chief Justice Mark Cady: We’re talking about this underlying sense of finality having a strong sense of justice. Don’t you think we have learned something about finality [in light of recent cases using DNA evidence to prove actual innocence]?

Whether the right balance can be struck between finality of justice versus a miscarriage of justice, Lucey told the Court, all she is asking for is a hearing for her client to plead his case in court that he is innocent.


Iowa Supreme Court preview: Can you claim ‘actual innocence’ after pleading guilty to a crime?

By: Rox Laird on January 3rd, 2017

If you plead guilty to a criminal charge can you later claim you are in fact innocent after your accuser recants his testimony?

That question will be before the Iowa Supreme Court in Schmidt v. Iowa this term.

Jacob Schmidt entered a guilty plea in 2007 to charges of intent to commit sex abuse and incest after he was accused of sexually assaulting his younger half-brother. Schmidt was sentenced to seven years in prison and 10 years of supervision by the Department of Corrections following his release.

Seven years later, the victim recanted his earlier testimony, and now says Schmidt did not sexually abuse him. Schmidt subsequently filed a petition for post-conviction relief in Woodbury County District Court, arguing that he should be able to use the recanted testimony to overturn his conviction.

The District Court dismissed the case, and the question now before the Supreme Court on appeal is whether the recanted testimony can be used by Schmidt as newly discovered evidence of his actual innocence even though he earlier pled guilty.

The Iowa Code provides an avenue for appealing a criminal conviction when “there exists evidence of material facts, not previously presented and heard, that requires vacation of the conviction or sentence in the interest of justice.”

Schmidt argues in a brief filed with the Court that this Code subsection provides him the opportunity to pursue a claim of “actual innocence.” The victim’s recanted testimony, he argues, is “evidence of a material fact, not previously presented and heard, that requires vacation of the conviction in the interest of justice.”

The Court in a 1990 ruling (State v. Alexander), however, appeared to foreclose appeals such as Schmidt’s based on that Code section:

“We are confident that the legislature did not intend to give admittedly guilty persons the unfettered right to recant their admission and proceed to trial on the ground of newly discovered evidence or any other ground not intrinsic to the plea. Notions of newly discovered evidence simply have no bearing on a knowing and voluntary admission of guilt.”

As Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller argues in a brief on behalf of the state, “If the defendant had been actually innocent, he would have been aware of that at the time of his plea.”

Schmidt argues, however, that the Court left the door open to an appeal such as his when it went on to say in the Alexander decision that “the remedy Alexander seeks is available to him in the form of postconviction relief.”

In response, the Attorney General says that sentence referred to an appeal based on the argument that a guilty plea was made on bad advice of legal counsel. Schmidt makes no such argument in his appeal.

This case has drawn interest from groups that represent the wrongfully convicted. Amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs were filed with the Iowa Supreme Court on Schmidt’s behalf by the Exoneration Project based at the University of Chicago and by the Innocence Network and the Innocence Project of Iowa.

Both organizations cite many examples where defendants confessed to crimes they did not commit, and both urge the Iowa Court to provide convicted offenders like Schmidt access to the courts to submit evidence of their innocence.

(Go to Cases in the Pipeline at On Brief to read the parties’ briefs in Schmidt v. Iowa.)


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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.



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