Iowa Supreme Court 2016-17 Preview: Appeal in 12-year-old murder case arrives at the Iowa Supreme Court Wednesday

By: Rox Laird on October 18th, 2016

Arguments in a long-running legal battle over a Des Moines murder case that has been in the news will be heard by the Iowa Supreme Court Wednesday. The outcome could determine whether an accused accomplice will go to prison for life.

Ankeny businessman Vern Huser was convicted in 2010 of first degree murder for aiding and abetting the 2004 murder of Lance Morningstar. Huser is accused of engaging Louis Woolheater to kill Morningstar, who had had an affair with Huser’s wife. Woolheater is serving a life sentence after being convicted in 2010 for the Morningstar murder.

The Iowa Court of Appeals in 2011 reversed Huser’s conviction, based in part on the trial court’s admission of hearsay evidence.

Huser was retried and convicted in 2013, and again appealed that conviction arguing that, among other things, the same hearsay evidence was wrongly admitted through a “back door” tactic in the second trial. The trial court ruled that, while evidence introduced by the prosecution was derived from the hearsay evidence, it was not prejudicial to the defendant.

An Iowa Court of Appeals panel in a split decision last year ruled 2-1 to affirm the second trial verdict. Huser’s appeal of that verdict is now before the Iowa Supreme Court.

The Iowa Attorney General in a brief for the State argues the jury had sufficient evidence to find Huser guilty of encouraging Woolheater to commit the murder. The State specifically disputes the assertion that Huser’s second conviction should be overturned on grounds of inadmissible hearsay or for his other claims, including prosecutorial misconduct, faulty jury instructions and other errors at trial.

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The Supreme Court will also hear arguments Wednesday in a case that could have implications for where the state places convicted sex offenders needing nursing home care.

The appeal in Gottschalk v. Pomeroy Center v. State poses the question: When Iowa releases a convicted sex offender confined under the State’s civil commitment statutes, does the State have a duty to protect the public from harm?

That is the position of the family of a woman allegedly sexually assaulted by a convicted sex offender at a Pomeroy nursing home where both were residents. The family sued the nursing home and the State. The nursing home also sued the State.

In response, the State says it had no duty to protect the public in this case because the offender had been discharged from confinement by court order.

See our earlier post (“Must the State protect public from released sex offenders?”) for more background on this case.

The Court is also scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday in five other cases, and five cases will be submitted for review without oral arguments. Go to the Judicial Branch website to find a link to the full list of October cases.

 

 

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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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