2016-17 Iowa Supreme Court preview: Do high school baseball dugouts need to be completely enclosed?

By: Rox Laird on April 3rd, 2017

Muscatine High School was at bat in the fifth inning and Spencer Ludman was waiting in the dugout for his turn at bat when a foul ball rocketed off a Davenport Assumption player’s bat and struck Ludman in the head. He suffered a skull fracture, spent months recovering from brain injuries and suffers from seizures and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The player sued, and a Scott County jury returned a verdict finding Davenport Assumption negligent – with the school 70 percent at fault and Ludman 30 percent – and set damages at $1.5 million. The District Court reduced the damage award to $1.033 million.

The question is who is to blame and, if so, to what degree? Did Davenport Assumption High School fail to protect visiting teams from foul balls? Or is Ludman at fault for failing to be aware of the inherent risks of baseball?

That is the central question before Iowa Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments in Ludman v. Davenport Assumption High School when the court meets in Charles City today for its final oral argument session outside of Des Moines.

This is a timely case for the Court to take on the road: Baseball season officially begins with opening of the major league season this week. And, residents of any Iowa community can relate to an injured high school ballplayer as well as to the prospect of their school being held financially responsible for that injury.

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the school raises several reasons why the verdict should be reversed. Among them: The case should never have gone to the jury because, under the “primary assumption of risk” standard, the high school had no duty to protect Ludman. Instead, he should have been aware of the dangers of baseball and taken precaution to protect himself from foul balls by remaining behind the dugout’s protective fence.

Ludman, in legal briefs submitted to the Court, disputes the school’s arguments and says the District Court verdict should stand – with one exception: He is asking the Supreme Court to reverse the lower court on comparative negligence and award him 100 percent of the damages.

The case has attracted amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs on both sides of the question:

The Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) argues in support of Davenport Assumption, noting that it hosts post-season tournaments at many Iowa high school ballfields with similar – or even less protective – dugout designs. That includes the site of recent state baseball tournament finals at the home of the Iowa Cubs at Des Moines’ Principal Park. (Disclosure: The IHSAA brief was written by lawyers Brian Humke and Ryan Koopmans of the Nyemaster Goode Law Firm, which hosts this blog.)

On the flip side, the Iowa Association of Justice, an organization of Iowa trial lawyers, argues that the Supreme Court should uphold the lower-court ruling because school administrators and athletic facility designers should strive for safety rather than forcing students to choose between their own safety and participating in sports.

The argument will begin at 7 p.m. at the Old Charles City Middle School auditorium. (Go to the Iowa Judicial Branch website to find details on the Charles City arguments and to read briefs in the case.)

2016-17 Iowa Supreme Court status report: 69 down; 49 to go

By: Rox Laird on March 23rd, 2017

Tomorrow the Iowa Supreme Court is expected to hand down one decision, which will bring to 69 the number of cases disposed of in the first seven months of the 2016-17 term.

After the release of tomorrow’s decision, 43 submitted cases will remain to be decided, and six more cases are set to be argued or submitted to the court without oral argument by the middle of April.

That means the Court is on track to hand down a total of 118 decisions (including 16 lawyer discipline cases) when the term ends in three months and one week. That is on par for the Cady Court, which typically decides about 105 cases each term.

A sign that the justices may be struggling with a case is the length of time between oral argument and a decision. Fourteen cases argued in September and October 2016, the first two months of this term, remain undecided.

Those 14 include a challenge to a drunken-boating prosecution that’s been before the court for two years and a constitutional question in the long-running legal battle between the governor and the former Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner.

Following are some noteworthy cases in the pipeline (headlines following case titles contain links to our earlier posts about these cases):

State v. Pettijohn: “Will Iowa Court chart a new course in boating case?”

Godfrey v. State of Iowa, et al.: “Can Iowa courts create damage claims for constitutional violations?”

Estate of Mercedes Gottschalk v. Pomeroy Care Center v. State of Iowa: “Must the State protect public from released sex offenders?”

State v. Martinez: “Does federal immigration policy preempt Iowa’s criminal laws?”

Brakke v.Iowa Department of Natural Resources: “Did DNR go too far in protecting deer from chronic wasting disease?”

Schmidt v. State: “Can you claim ‘actual innocence’ after pleading guilty to a crime?”

State v. Plain: “Is it possible to guarantee racial balance on Iowa juries?”

State v. Shorter; State v. Russell: “Homicide victim pummeled by 15 people; does it matter which one(s) delivered the deadly blows?”

State v. Roby; State v. Majors; State v. Graham: “Court asked to go further on juvenile sentences”

Iowa Supreme Court 2016-17 preview: Did Iowa’s anti-slavery delegates in 1857 give criminal defendants broader rights today?

By: Rox Laird on March 14th, 2017

Eight years before the Civil War, drafters of the Iowa Constitution incorporated language into the Bill of Rights aimed at protecting the rights of fugitive slaves who traveled to Iowa. A convicted murderer is now asking the Iowa Supreme Court to apply that language in granting his bid for a new trial.

John David Green was convicted of second-degree murder in the strangulation death of a Sac City man in part on the strength of Green’s confession. He argues the confession should not have been used against him because he was not informed of his right to be represented by legal counsel when he was interrogated by police officers.

That argument likely would not succeed under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right to the assistance of legal counsel “in all criminal prosecutions.” That has been read by the courts to mean the right to counsel attaches only when a criminal prosecution has been formally initiated.

Green, however, cites the Iowa Constitution’s equivalent of the Sixth Amendment, which goes further to guarantee the right to the assistance of legal counsel “in all criminal prosecutions, and in cases involving the life, or liberty of an individual.”

Green argues that phrase, added to protect the rights of fugitive slaves in the new free-soil state of Iowa, gives defendants broader rights to counsel under the state constitution.

Green cites a 1987 ruling in which the Iowa Supreme Court broadly construed Article I, Section 10 “to effectuate its purpose, which was to correct the imbalance between the position of an accused and the powerful forces of the State in a criminal prosecution.”

The challenge is where to draw the line between an investigation and a prosecution. For Sixth Amendment purposes, that is generally when a formal charge has been filed. Under Iowa’s Constitution, Green argues, it comes earlier in the process when the wheels of prosecution have been set in motion.

In his case, Green argues it was clear the “forces of the State” were arrayed against him when he was brought in for questioning after being tracked down in Florida and confronted by four Iowa law-enforcement authorities and five Florida peace officers.

The Sac County attorney secretly observed the interview from another room and fed questions to officers as they came in and out of the interview room.

Charges were not filed until after the Florida interview. But, by orchestrating the interrogation, lawyers for Green argue in a brief filed with the Court, he was “subjected to the ‘functional equivalent’ of an adversarial prosecution by his ‘expert adversary’ and thus his constitutional right to counsel had attached. As a result, any statements obtained from Green during the interrogation were obtained in violation of article I, section 10 of the Iowa Constitution and should have been suppressed.”

During oral argument in Green’s case last week, members of the Court struggled with how police and prosecutors would know when a line has been crossed into an active prosecution and they must advise a suspect of his or her right to counsel.

Justice Brent Appel: There are degrees of prosecutorial involvement. Law officers can consult with the county attorney at any time, and they do. This may have been more intense (involvement by prosecutor). To what extent did the prosecutor direct the questions?

Assistant State Appellate Defender Melinda Nye: He was in the next room; officers step out many times to consult, and then go back in to ask questions prompted by the prosecutor.

Chief Justice Mark Cady: Suppose the prosecutor stayed in Iowa and gave the interrogator very detailed questions?

Nye: It depends on the details.

Justice Edward Mansfield: How is the state going to apply this test?

Nye: The totality of the circumstances: The cops do this all the time already and make a determination.

Justice Thomas Waterman: What is the problem if we rule there is a pre-arrest right to counsel?

Assistant Iowa Attorney General Bridget Chambers: There would be many problems. This was in another state, where the state can’t appoint an attorney. The average law enforcement officer will have no way to know (whether the right to counsel has attached).

Justice Daryl Hecht: We deal with that kind of multifactor analysis in Miranda. Why not here?

Chambers: The purpose of Section 10 is a fair trial. There are other protections, constitutional and statutory. Solving crimes is a social good. Nothing in Section 10 suggests that we don’t want to solve crimes.

This is not the first time the justices have struggled with how to apply Article I, Section 10 to criminal cases. Last term, the Court was deeply divided in a drunken driving case on the question of whether the suspect had a right to consult in private with legal counsel before submitting to a sobriety test.

In that case (State v. Senn), the justices produced 123 pages in three separate opinions, which delved deeply into the history of Article I, Section 10 based on debates at the 1857 Constitutional Convention. Yet, there was no majority for a decision on the question of when the right to counsel attaches under the Iowa Constitution. By raising the issue in this appeal, Green’s goal is that one or more justices will join a majority to support his argument.

[Go to the Cases in the Pipeline page at On Brief to read the briefs in State v. Green.]

Iowa Supreme Court 2016-17 preview: Does confidentiality in a ‘morbidity and mortality’ report apply to a dislocated shoulder?

By: Rox Laird on March 6th, 2017

Dennis Willard was admitted to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics for treatment of injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident. Among his injuries was a dislocated shoulder, but Willard alleges that was inflicted by hospital staff while he was sedated. Now he is asking the Iowa Supreme Court to rule that he should have access to hospital records that might support his malpractice lawsuit against the state.

Oral arguments in the case, Willard v. State of Iowa, are scheduled to be heard at 1 p.m. Tuesday.

The records in question consist of 20 pages – out of more than 5,500 pages produced by the state hospital – of what is called a Patient Safety Net (PSN) report. PSNs are internal reports prepared by hospital staff documenting events that occur in the course of treatment with the goal of avoiding mistakes and improving medical procedures.

The State maintains that these PSN reports are confidential under state law and are thus exempt from discovery in civil suits. Confidentiality is necessary, the State argues, so hospital employees are comfortable reporting incidents that might affect patient care procedures.

Willard’s appeal has drawn the attention of other Iowa hospitals and medical professionals: Amicus curiae briefs were submitted to the Court by the Iowa Hospital Association and by the American Medical Association and the Iowa Medical Society. Both friend-of-the-court briefs support the State’s position, arguing that medical errors are reduced by studying internal incident reports, and by assuring confidentiality hospital staff will be more forthcoming.

According to a brief filed on behalf of the state hospital by Attorney General Tom Miller, the Legislature specifically exempted internal information compiled by hospitals documenting “morbidity and mortality” (disease and death) experience.

“The clear legislative intent” in protecting morbidity and mortality information from disclosure, the State argues, “is to provide a confidential method of reporting incidents or concerns about the care and treatment of patients and to allow for critical self-analysis for improvement of the practice of medicine.”

Willard counters that Patient Safety Net reports should not be swept into the category of privileged morbidity and mortality information. By dictionary definition, the terms morbidity and mortality refer to disease and death whereas the incident in his case involves a shoulder injury, which is “indisputably non-life threatening.”

Moreover, the plaintiff argues, while state law exempts certain hospital reports from being introduced as evidence in civil litigation, they still may be disclosed in discovery proceedings provided they are not used in court. “This statute deals with admissibility, not discoverability,” Willard argues in a brief filed with the Court.

(Go to Cases in the Pipeline at On Brief to read the briefs filed in Willard v. State of Iowa.)

Iowa Supreme Court 2016-17 preview: Is it possible to guarantee racial balance on Iowa juries?

By: Rox Laird on February 13th, 2017

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says criminal defendants have the right to a jury made up of a cross-section of the community. Assembling a jury that precisely reflects a community’s racial makeup can be statistically challenging in a state with small percentages of racial minorities, however.

That mean the courts must make a greater effort to assure minority groups are fairly represented on juries, according to a criminal appeal to be heard Tuesday by the Iowa Supreme Court. (Go to On Brief’s Cases in the Pipeline page to read briefs in State v. Plain.)

Kelvin Plain Sr. appealed his harassment conviction in Black Hawk District Court on a number of grounds, including a challenge to the racial composition of the venire pool from which his jury was chosen.

Plain, who is black, objected to the fact that the venire pool of 56 eligible jurors included only one African-American – or 1.8 percent of the total, whereas blacks make up 9 percent of the population of Black Hawk County. None of the 23 potential jurors considered in voir dire for Plain’s jury was black.

The courts commonly use two measures for assessing acceptable racial composition of jury pools – absolute disparity or comparative disparity.

Absolute disparity is the difference between the percentage of members of a minority group in a jury pool and the percentage of that minority group in the community. In Plain’s case, the difference between 9 percent (the percentage of blacks in the county) and 1.8 percent (percentage of blacks on Plain’s jury pool) is 7.2 percentage points.

Comparative disparity is the percentage of eligible minority-group members in a jury pool compared to the minority group’s representation in the community. Plain’s jury pool was 1.8 percent black, which is 20 percent of the share of blacks in Black Hawk County.

The Iowa Supreme Court in a 1992 decision (State v. Jones) adopted the absolute disparity standard, following the lead of the U.S. Supreme Court, which has held that an absolute disparity of as much as 10 percent is sufficient to satisfy the jury cross-section requirement of the Sixth Amendment.

Plain urges the Iowa Supreme Court to overrule Jones and adopt the comparative disparity standard.

“In Black Hawk County,” he argues in a brief filed with the Court, “African-Americans will never be substantially underrepresented under an absolute disparity calculation because the maximum underrepresentation that could be found, if no African-Americans appeared on the list of eligible jurors, would be 9 percent. The same is true for virtually every county in Iowa.”

In response, the State argues in a brief filed by Attorney General Tom Miller that numerical representation of a minority group on a jury pool is only one factor weighed in such Sixth Amendment cases. In addition, the State argues, the courts look at whether there has been a “systematic exclusion of the [minority] group in the jury-selection process.”

Plain has not shown evidence of such systematic exclusion, the State argues, and it is not enough to prove “substantial underrepresentation” of one jury pool. “The nature of a randomly drawn jury panel ensures that some jury panels in Black Hawk County will contain more African-Americans, and some will have fewer African-Americans. That distribution, standing alone, does not establish any violation of the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury panel comprised of a fair cross-section of the community.”

Although state and federal appeals courts have wrestled with the issue of minority representation on juries for decades, some members of the Iowa Supreme Court may be receptive to wrestling with the subject again because of the disparity of African-Americans in Iowa’s prison population.

Plain points out that in 2014, African-Americans represented 3.4 percent of Iowa’s population but made up 26.2 of the state’s prison population. Members of the Iowa Supreme Court have expressed concern about that disparity in the past.

If this case “is not sufficient to satisfy the prima facie elements of systematic exclusion,” Plain argues, “then no case ever will.”

Iowa Supreme Court 2016-17 Preview: Court asked to go further on juvenile sentences

By: Rox Laird on December 2nd, 2016

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments this month in three cases that could add to a growing body of Iowa law regarding sentencing of juvenile criminal offenders.

In one case, the Court is urged to rule that the appellant’s mandatory minimum sentence was wrongly upheld by a trial court on review. In a second, the appellant argues that mandatory minimum sentences should be held categorically unconstitutional for juveniles. The third appellant asks the court to rule it unconstitutional to subject a juvenile to lifetime parole and lifetime listing on the sex-offender registry.

The three cases scheduled to be argued Dec. 14 and 15 follow a series of rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court dating back a decade or more based on expert evidence that juvenile offenders are fundamentally different from adults. Their characters are not fully formed, studies show, and they are thus less culpable than adult offenders.

Beginning in 2005 the nation’s high court handed down a series of rulings – beginning with the death penalty and followed by sentences of life without parole in homicide and non-homicide cases – declaring that certain sentences are cruel and unusual punishment for offenders under age 18.

Since then, the Iowa Supreme Court has followed suit with a half-dozen rulings of its own, including a decision in 2014 (State v. Lyle) that, in the case of juveniles, one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum prison sentences prescribed by the Legislature violate the Iowa Constitution’s equivalent of the Eighth Amendment.

The Court in Lyle said a juvenile could be sentenced to a minimum prison term before being eligible for parole, but there must be a finding by a trial court that weighs a number of mitigating factors, including the offender’s age, family and home life, the nature of the crime and his or her potential for reform.

All three appeals set for December argument ask the court to clarify or expand on the Lyle decision.

In State v. Majors, appellant Jarrod Majors argues that the trial court misapplied Lyle’s mitigating factors in upholding his minimum sentence of 24½ years. Majors wants his case sent back for a rehearing by the District Court.

In State v. Roby, appellant Christopher Roby argues that the mitigating factors set out in Lyle have been so inconsistently applied in various cases that the Court should simply declare that mandatory minimum sentences of all juvenile offenders are categorically unconstitutional.

In the third case, State v. Graham, appellant Bradley Graham argues that his sentence, which included lifetime parole supervision and lifetime listing on the sex-offender registry following his release from prison, is unconstitutional because he was a juvenile at the time of his conviction.

In briefs filed with the Court representing the state, the Iowa Attorney General, rejects all three arguments.

In Majors, the state says the trial court properly considered the Lyle mitigating factors. In Graham, the state points out that Graham’s lifetime parole can be shortened by the Iowa Board of Parole and sex-offender registry conditions can be changed after five years, thus resolving any constitutional questions.

As for declaring all mandatory minimum sentences for juveniles unconstitutional, the Attorney General said the Court’s 2014 decision in Lyle was the “logical end point.” By “replacing mandatory sentences with individualized consideration of ‘youth and its attendant circumstances,’ Lyle resolved the constitutional infirmity and ended the need for further judicial control of the Legislature’s power to set the boundaries of criminal sentencing.”

[Note: Go to On Brief’s Cases in the Pipeline page to read the appellant’s and appellee’s briefs in these cases.]

Iowa Supreme Court 2016-17 Preview: Did DNR go too far in protecting deer from Chronic Wasting Disease?

By: Rox Laird on November 14th, 2016

The owners of a whitetail deer hunting preserve in southern Iowa say the Iowa Department of Natural Resources exceeded its authority in its efforts to prevent the spread of a deer disease, which ultimately led to the closure of the preserve and the loss of nearly $1 million in business.

A Polk County District judge agreed, the state appealed, and now the question is before the Iowa Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments in the case Wednesday.

The outcome could limit how aggressively the state can combat the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) that threatens the health of deer herds in Iowa and the $200 million economy generated by deer hunting. Also, the Court is being asked to declare the DNR’s regulatory actions affecting the hunting preserve to be an unconstitutional taking of property without just compensation.

Until 2013, Tom and Rhonda Brakke operated a 330-acre hunting preserve in Davis County, divided into two sections. The south half was owned by the Brakkes and the north half by a separate corporation. The Brakkes ran as many as 100 hunts a year on the preserve for fees that ranged from $2,500 to $12,000 depending on the number of deer harvested.

When a 300-pound buck shot on the north half of the preserve tested positive for CWD in 2012, the DNR and the Brakkes reached an agreement in which the operators would remove all remaining deer and disinfect the premises after completion of the 2012-13 hunting season. Two more deer harvested from the north half of the preserve in the final season tested positive for CWD.

After the Brakkes removed all remaining deer, they shut down the preserve, surrendered their state operating permit, and began removing the perimeter fence. In response, the DNR issued an emergency order that the fence be restored and maintained to prevent wild deer from entering the property and contracting CWD from soil contaminated by infected deer.

That emergency order is at the heart of this appeal.

The Brakkes argue that the DNR exceeded its statutory authority when it ordered the fence restored and issued a quarantine of the former preserve for five years. And they assert that the state’s actions amounted to a taking of their property without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment because the emergency order denies them economically viable use of the property. The state’s regulatory actions, they say, cost them $917,309 in lost business.

The state responds that the DNR acted within its statutory authority to protect and manage wildlife, which includes combatting the spread of disease among whitetail deer on regulated hunting preserves. Moreover, the state argues, the extended quarantine was justified by the fact that the threat of spreading CWD exists even after deer were removed from the preserve.

As for the takings argument, the state counters that the quarantine is for a limited period and the owners can put the property to other economically beneficial uses, such as fishing, hunting of other wild animals and agriculture.

Many Iowans might think the highways and their backyard gardens would be safer if a few more deer succumb to Chronic Wasting Disease. But the issues raised in this case are of obvious importance to the Brakkes and the DNR, not to mention hunters and those who make a living from the hunting industry. The court will hear oral arguments in the case at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Iowa Supreme Court 2016-17 Preview: Does federal immigration policy preempt Iowa’s criminal laws?

By: Rox Laird on October 19th, 2016

Martha Martinez was brought to the United States in 1997, when she was 11 years old and has lived in Muscatine as an undocumented immigrant ever since. So when President Barack Obama established the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” by executive order in 2012, Martinez saw an opportunity to emerge from the shadows.

DACA meant she was eligible to legally obtain employment and a driver’s license, and to forge a new life without fear of immediate deportation. Before seeking DACA status, however, Martinez had earlier obtained both a driver’s license and employment using an assumed identity, and as a result she is being prosecuted in Muscatine County District Court on two felony counts.

Martinez, though, says that this case shouldn’t even get trial, and so she is asking the Iowa Supreme Court to intervene and throw out the charges against her.

The appeal, being argued tomorrow, could have broad implications for the highly charged immigration debate in Iowa, and at least one issue raised in Martinez’s appeal presents the Iowa Supreme Court with an issue it has not addressed before. In fact, two amicus curiae briefs were filed on Martinez’s behalf: one by DREAM Iowa and six other Iowa immigration support groups, and the other by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.

Martinez’ legal argument turns on the principle that Congress has the power to preempt state laws under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. That includes state laws that are either in direct conflict with federal law, expressly preempted by federal law or precluded by federal laws that occupy a field that Congress has determined it must regulated exclusively.

Martinez argues that the Iowa laws used to convict her of forgery and identity theft are preempted by the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act, which was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in Arizona v. United States (2012) in striking down Arizona state criminal statutes aimed at curbing illegal immigration.

In the alternative, Martinez argues that Iowa criminal statutes applied to her are preempted by “federal immigration objectives and purposes” expressed in the DACA program.

In its response on behalf of the State, the Iowa Attorney General counters that the trial court got it right in rejecting the federal preemption argument. As the trial court concluded, Iowa’s forgery and identity theft laws apply equally, whether the accused are here legally or not. The State cites a U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the court said the fact that undocumented immigrants are the subject to prosecution under state law does not necessarily conflict with federal government’s authority to regulate immigration.

“Congress has preempted State legislation on the employment of illegal aliens,” the Attorney General concedes. “But, it has not preempted state crimes of forgery or identity theft.”

Nor does the Attorney General give much credence to the argument that the state laws enforced against here are preempted by DACA, noting that “it is questionable that the President has the constitutional authority to preempt a state law through the exercise of prosecutorial discretion,” since the Constitution “reserves the power of preemption to Congress.”

Both sides make compelling legal arguments, but for those who support Martinez the issue is as much about humanitarian treatment of immigrants as it is about the legal issues.

As the immigration support groups says in their amicus brief filed with the court:

“The effects of this prosecution conflict with the goals of DACA to lift eligible applicants from constant fear and allow them to serve as productive members of their communities. Amici are witness to the fear and distrust already existing in the immigrant populations of Iowa. This prosecution will result in fewer DACA applications and in fewer DACA recipients choosing to apply for a driver’s license — a benefit necessary for becoming a fully-integrated and productive member of the community — out of fear that such actions will result in prosecution or deportation.”

The Attorney General made a point of responding to the amicus briefs, and departed as well from legal issues to make a general point about immigration:

“Sympathy may explain the President’s act of discretion. But, the value of unauthorized aliens’ contributions to the state or the hard-heartedness of the law has little bearing on Congressional preemption. The local prosecutor must enforce the law. . . .  If that seems too harsh, then there is no better ‘method to secure the repeal of bad or obnoxious law so effective as their stringent execution’.” [From Ulysses S. Grant’s Inaugural Address, Mar. 4, 1869.] “The better place to address the policy concerns raised here is in Congress or the Iowa Legislature.”

* This post has been updated to corrects an earlier reference the status of Martinez’ Muscatine County criminal trial.

Iowa Supreme Court 2016-17 Preview: Appeal in 12-year-old murder case arrives at the Iowa Supreme Court Wednesday

By: Rox Laird on October 18th, 2016

Arguments in a long-running legal battle over a Des Moines murder case that has been in the news will be heard by the Iowa Supreme Court Wednesday. The outcome could determine whether an accused accomplice will go to prison for life.

Ankeny businessman Vern Huser was convicted in 2010 of first degree murder for aiding and abetting the 2004 murder of Lance Morningstar. Huser is accused of engaging Louis Woolheater to kill Morningstar, who had had an affair with Huser’s wife. Woolheater is serving a life sentence after being convicted in 2010 for the Morningstar murder.

The Iowa Court of Appeals in 2011 reversed Huser’s conviction, based in part on the trial court’s admission of hearsay evidence.

Huser was retried and convicted in 2013, and again appealed that conviction arguing that, among other things, the same hearsay evidence was wrongly admitted through a “back door” tactic in the second trial. The trial court ruled that, while evidence introduced by the prosecution was derived from the hearsay evidence, it was not prejudicial to the defendant.

An Iowa Court of Appeals panel in a split decision last year ruled 2-1 to affirm the second trial verdict. Huser’s appeal of that verdict is now before the Iowa Supreme Court.

The Iowa Attorney General in a brief for the State argues the jury had sufficient evidence to find Huser guilty of encouraging Woolheater to commit the murder. The State specifically disputes the assertion that Huser’s second conviction should be overturned on grounds of inadmissible hearsay or for his other claims, including prosecutorial misconduct, faulty jury instructions and other errors at trial.


The Supreme Court will also hear arguments Wednesday in a case that could have implications for where the state places convicted sex offenders needing nursing home care.

The appeal in Gottschalk v. Pomeroy Center v. State poses the question: When Iowa releases a convicted sex offender confined under the State’s civil commitment statutes, does the State have a duty to protect the public from harm?

That is the position of the family of a woman allegedly sexually assaulted by a convicted sex offender at a Pomeroy nursing home where both were residents. The family sued the nursing home and the State. The nursing home also sued the State.

In response, the State says it had no duty to protect the public in this case because the offender had been discharged from confinement by court order.

See our earlier post (“Must the State protect public from released sex offenders?”) for more background on this case.

The Court is also scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday in five other cases, and five cases will be submitted for review without oral arguments. Go to the Judicial Branch website to find a link to the full list of October cases.



Iowa Supreme Court 2016-17 Preview: What a difference 15 eighty-fifths can make in your day

By: Rox Laird on September 22nd, 2016

Iowa Supreme Court justices and courtroom observers may need calculators to follow an oral argument next month in a case that involves how quickly prison inmates earn the right to early discharge from their sentences.

Two Iowa women convicted as juveniles argue they should be eligible for earlier discharge under the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in State v. Lyle, which held that mandatory minimum sentences for juvenile offenders that allow no judicial discretion are unconstitutional. The Department of Corrections argues the Lyle ruling did not change how state law dictates when the two may be eligible for early discharge.

The legal dispute over how the court should interpret the impact of the Lyle decision on early prison discharges is fairly straightforward: The two petitioners argue that state law requires the Department of Corrections to calculate release dates based on their prison sentences, not the underlying crimes for which they were convicted. The Department of Corrections takes the opposite view.

The practical implication of which view will prevail involves some head-scratching math.

Under Iowa law, prison inmates whose conduct makes them eligible for earned-time credits could cut their time served roughly in half. But inmates sentenced to certain prison terms must serve 85 percent of their sentences before being eligible for discharge.

To calculate the former, the Corrections Department grants qualifying inmates credits equal to 1.2 days for every day served toward early discharge. In other sentences, the department uses a formula of 15 eighty-fifths of a day per day served to calculate the 85 percent.

The difference between the results of the two calculations can be substantial, as seen in the appeals of Shannon Breeden and Laura Hochmuth now before the court.

Breeden began serving a 25-year sentence in 2003 for attempted murder with a mandatory minimum provision, meaning she would not be eligible for early discharge until 2023 under the department’s 85 percent calculation.

After the Lyle ruling, Breeden’s sentence was vacated, and she was resentenced to the same 25 year term but with the mandatory minimum provision eliminated. Thus, she argues the 85-percent calculation tied to mandatory minimum sentences does not apply and she should have been eligible for early discharge three years ago.

The difference is even more extreme for Hochmuth. She was sentenced to 50 years for kidnapping and robbery and would not have been eligible for early discharge before 2040. Without the mandatory minimum provision, she argues she should be eligible in 2021, nearly two decades earlier.

In addition to the Breeden and Hochmuth appeals set for argument on Oct. 20, the Court will consider a third appeal (Shawn James v. State of Iowa) raising the same issue, but that case will be submitted to the court without oral argument.

The outcome of these cases no doubt will be closely watched by defense lawyers, prison inmates and corrections officials alike: If the court sides with the plaintiffs, as many as 150 other offenders convicted as juveniles could benefit, according to an Attorney General’s Office estimate.

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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.