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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