Iowa Supreme Court Preview: Homicide victim pummeled by 15 people; does it matter which one(s) delivered the deadly blows?

By: Rox Laird on January 17th, 2017

Two men who say they were wrongly convicted of second-degree murder in connection with a beating death in Des Moines want the Iowa Supreme Court to vacate their convictions or order new trials.

James Shorter and Yarvon Russell were convicted by a Polk County jury of murder in the second degree for their part in the beating death of Richard Daughenbaugh. Daughenbaugh was repeatedly kicked and stomped on by as many as 15 people who were gathered for a night of partying near the Iowa Events Center in August 2013.

Shorter and Russell argue the evidence does not support their convictions on grounds of aiding and abetting or joint criminal conduct because they did not directly cause Daughenbaugh’s death.

The Court will hear arguments Wednesday morning in Shorter’s appeal; Russell’s separate appeal on similar grounds will be submitted to the court without oral argument.

Shorter maintains he did not directly participate in the beating, but even if testimony is accepted that he kicked the victim in the head as he lay on the ground, the medical examiner concluded Daughenbaugh died of injuries to other parts of his body.

“There is no evidence that Shorter delivered the blows that led to Daughenbaugh’s death,” his lawyer argues in a brief filed with the Court. “There is also no evidence that he advised or encouraged anyone to assault Daughenbaugh. There is no evidence of an agreement with the other individuals who actually caused Daughenbaugh’s death. There is no evidence that Shorter cheered these people on. Shorter was merely present at the scene which is not sufficient.”

In a brief in support of upholding Shorter’s conviction, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller points to the Iowa Code, which says that “all persons concerned in the commission of a public offense, whether they directly commit the act constituting the offense or aid and abet its commission, shall be charged, tried and punished as principals.”

If the State were required to prove that Shorter delivered the fatal blows, the Attorney General argues, “then nobody could be criminally liable for Daughenbaugh’s death — it would be impossible to establish, with any certainty, that one particular kick or stomp inflicted the fatal injury.”

In addition to questions of how the laws of aiding and abetting and joint criminal conduct apply to their cases, Shorter and Russell raise several other issues in challenging their trials and convictions, including assertions of ineffective assistance of counsel and trial court errors.

In fact, in an earlier opinion stemming from the Daughenbaugh murder, an Iowa Court of Appeals judge wrote that “this case has enough issues to fill a criminal law hornbook.”

The question now is whether the Iowa Supreme Court will add any groundbreaking law to criminal law textbooks in ruling on these appeals.

(Go to the Cases in the Pipeline page at On Brief: Iowa’s Appellate Blog to read briefs filed with the Court in these appeals.)

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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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