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.”

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