Iowa Supreme Court says convicted child abuser should get police reports that could help him win a new trial

By: Rox Laird on May 14th, 2018

A Black Hawk County man convicted of sexually abusing his granddaughter should have access to police reports that could undermine the credibility of his accuser, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled May 11.

David M. Powers was convicted of sex abuse based on allegations by his granddaughter, identified as K.P. in court records, who said the abuse occurred when she was age 13 and younger. Powers denied the accusations, and family members and a friend testified that she had told lies in the past.

In his petition for post-conviction relief, Powers sought to subpoena Waterloo police investigative reports about an incident that occurred after his trial in which K.P. reported that she had been sexually assaulted by gang members. Powers contended that police officers suspected K.P. had lied about that sexual assault, and he believed that would cast doubt on the truthfulness of her accusations against him.

After reviewing the police reports in camera, however, the District Court quashed the subpoena, saying K.P.’s accusations against the gang members had no relevance to the case against Powers.

The Iowa Supreme Court, in a 4-2 decision, disagreed and sent the case to the District Court and with instructions that Powers have access to the police reports. The majority opinion written by Justice Bruce Zager was joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Brent Appel and David Wiggins. Justice Edward Mansfield filed a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Thomas Waterman. Justice Daryl Hecht did not participate in the case.

The Court noted that the issue was whether the police investigative reports should be made available to Powers, not whether they should be admissible in the post-conviction proceedings. That is for the trial judge to decide, but the Supreme Court said when evidence against a defendant relies almost exclusively on the complaining witness’ testimony, the witness’ credibility may be pivotal.

In Powers’ case, the State had no physical evidence or other witnesses and relied almost exclusively on the testimony of K.P.

“Though the jury did hear evidence from K.P.’s family and a friend that she had a reputation for lying,” Zager wrote, “evidence that K.P. had also made false allegations of sexual abuse against others would likely further undermine her credibility in Powers’s favor.”

In his dissent, Justice Mansfield said K.P.’s alleged false claim – which occurred after Powers’ trial – does not constitute newly discovered material evidence because it would at best be used to impeach her testimony. “Criminal trials have an endpoint, and events that occur after trial – as opposed to new evidence about pretrial events – aren’t a basis for reopening the proceedings,” he wrote.

The majority did concede that evidence of another lie may not have affected Powers’ jury had it been presented at trial, but Zager said Powers is entitled to the police reports now because “a significant argument could be made that evidence showing K.P. made false allegations of sexual abuse against others, at or around the time that the motion for new trial was pending, may have had an impact on the sentencing judge when he or she was considering and deciding the motion for new trial.”

An amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief was submitted to the Court in this case by the Innocence Network, the Innocence Project of Iowa and the Midwest Innocence Project in support of Powers. The brief argued that equal access to exculpatory evidence reduces the imbalance of power between the state and criminal defendants.

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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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