UPDATES & ANALYSIS

6.06

Iowa Supreme Court sends ‘stand your ground’ case back for new trial

by Rox Laird | June 6, 2024

Lasondra Johnson was tried for first-degree murder for the shooting death of Jada Young-Mills outside a Waterloo residence. Johnson argued she acted in self defense and the shooting was justified under Iowa’s “stand your ground” law that says a person is justified in the use of reasonable force in the belief that such force is necessary in the face of imminent threat.

Johnson was acquitted on the murder charge but found guilty of the lesser included charge of assault causing serious injury. Johnson’s appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court was referred to the Iowa Court of Appeals, which affirmed her conviction but reversed the trial court’s restitution order.

On further review, the Iowa Supreme Court, concluding that the jury could have incorrectly interpreted the trial court’s instructions, vacated the Court of Appeals holding, reversed the district court judgment, and remanded the case for a new trial. The Supreme Court did not address the restitution issue.

The decision for the unanimous Court was written by Justice Matthew McDermott.

The Court said the requirement that a person facing an imminent threat must, if possible, retreat before using force was modified when the Legislature in 2017 added an exception to the duty to retreat by stating that a person “who is not engaged in illegal activity has no duty to retreat from any place where the person is lawfully present before using force.”

That exception, Iowa Code section 704.1(3), provides what is referred to as the right to “stand your ground,” the Court said. “The statute makes clear that people need not retreat from a place where they are lawfully present and are not engaged in illegal activity before using force,” Justice McDermott wrote. “In other words, if a person is engaging in illegal activity or is unlawfully present, the duty to retreat remains.”

A key question presented to the jury was whether Johnson’s shooting of Mills was justified under this exception.

Johnson argues that two jury instructions by the trial court misled the jury to conclude she was engaged in illegal activity in the act of shooting at Mills.

A part of the disputed jury instructions said the defendant’s use of force was not justified if the “defendant was engaged in the illegal activity of Assault” as defined in another instruction as “an act which was intended to cause pain or injury, which was intended to result in physical contact which was insulting or offensive, or which was intended to place Jada Young-Mills in fear of an immediate physical contact which would have been painful, injurious, insulting or offensive to her.”

Based on evidence presented at trial, the jury could have seen three acts by Johnson as meeting that definition of assault: that Johnson was engaged in an assault on Mills and her companions at the time of the shooting; that she committed a separate assault when she brandished her gun at Mills; or that the assault was Johnson’s shooting of Mills.

The third possible interpretation would “eviscerate” the stand-your-ground defense or the presumption of reasonable use of deadly force, Justice McDermott wrote. “Every time a defendant invoked the defense or presumption, the State could simply point to the use of deadly force and argue that the defendant was engaged in an assault (an ‘illegal activity’) in the place where the defendant used force. No one who uses deadly force to defend themselves would ever be successful in a stand-your-ground defense or receive the benefit of the deadly force presumption, effectively nullifying the statute.”

 

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The Iowa Supreme Court entered opinions in ten cases during March 2024. These opinions are summarized below.

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