Iowa Supreme Court: Trial judge erred on removing a biased juror, but the verdict stands

By: Rox Laird on December 4th, 2017

A trial judge committed error when he ruled against dismissing a potential juror who objected to the defendant’s sexual orientation, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled on Dec. 1.

The judge’s “abuse of discretion” did not result in a reversal of the jury’s verdict that the defendant was guilty of second-degree murder, but the Supreme Court in State of Iowa v. Stephen Robert Jonas established a new standard on when such errors should be considered prejudicial.

The Court in an opinion by Justice Brent Appel unanimously affirmed Jonas’ conviction, but three justices concurred in a separate opinion in which they disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that the District Court erred in denying the motion to disqualify the juror for cause.

Jonas was convicted of stabbing Zachery Paulson to death in 2014 in an encounter that came after Paulson had rejected Jonas’ sexual advances. Prospective jurors were asked whether the fact that Jonas is gay would affect their ability to fairly and impartially weigh the evidence.

One juror admitted the defendant’s sexual orientation could affect his thinking. In response to questions from Polk County District Judge Paul Scott as to whether that would cause him to be prejudiced against Jonas, the juror responded: “Again, I don’t think it would be determined whether he was guilty or innocent, but I would still have a bias there some place, yes.”

The trial judge rejected the defendant’s motion to have the juror removed for cause, so Jonas’ counsel used one of his 10 peremptory strikes to remove the juror.

Jonas’ appeal presented two questions: First, was it an abuse of discretion for the trial court to reject the motion to remove the juror for cause, thus forcing Jonas’ counsel to unnecessarily expend a peremptory strike? Second, if so, did that prejudice Jonas’ defense?

Appel said the Iowa Supreme Court has traditionally deferred to trial judges’ discretion on removing jurors for cause. But he cited a 1912 ruling in which the Court said “it is far better to give the accused the benefit of the doubt, to the end that he and all other men may be satisfied that his rights have not been invaded.”

In the Jonas decision, the majority said a juror should be dismissed for cause in a case where a potential juror “initially repeatedly expresses actual bias against the defendant based on race, ethnicity, sex, or sexual orientation, both in a pretrial questionnaire and in voir dire.”

Until recent years, Iowa has held that such an abuse of discretion by the trial court was presumed to be prejudicial, because defendant should not be deprived of full number of peremptory challenges.

But the Iowa Supreme Court reversed course in a 1993 ruling in State v. Neuendorf in which the Court concluded that the existence of prejudice was “too speculative to justify overturning the verdict of the jury.”

Appel noted this issue “has obviously confounded the courts for some time.” In the end, the majority concluded that Iowa should adopt the practice of Texas and Florida courts where a defendant must ask for an additional peremptory strike when the trial court improperly refuses to disqualify a potential juror.

Since that option was not exercised by Jonas, however, the Court upheld his conviction. And that is where the decision should have ended, according to Justice Thomas Waterman’s concurring opinion joined by Justices Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager.

“I disagree with majority’s conclusion that the District Court abused its discretion by denying Jonas’s motion to disqualify the juror for cause,” Waterman wrote. “In my view, the District Court acted within its discretion. I would affirm Jonas’s conviction on that basis and leave the rest of the majority’s discussion for another case and another day.”

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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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