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.

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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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