UPDATES & ANALYSIS

11.14

October 2023 Opinion Roundup

by Matt McGuire | November 14, 2023

The Iowa Supreme Court entered opinions in seven cases during October 2023. You can find in-depth summaries of two cases at the following links:

Below are summaries of the Court’s remaining opinions issued last month:

State of Iowa v. Dagger Le Erdman, No. 21–1594
Opinion date: October 13, 2023
On further review from the Iowa Court of Appeals

Issues:

  • Whether the juvenile court properly exercised its discretion in waiving jurisdiction over Erdman to be tried as an adult.
  • Whether sufficient evidence supported Erdman’s conviction for second-degree sexual abuse.

A unanimous Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals, holding that the juvenile court did not abuse its discretion in waiving its jurisdiction and that there was substantial evidence to support Dagger Le Erdman’s conviction for second-degree sexual abuse. Chief Justice Christensen authored the opinion of the Court.

 

Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board v. Mike Mulamba Mbanza, No. 23–0160
Opinion date: October 20, 2023
On review from the report of the Iowa Supreme Court Grievance Commission.

Issues:

  • Whether an attorney committed violations of Iowa ethics rules and a federal regulation governing immigration matters, justifying a 30-day suspension of that attorney’s license.
  • Whether the attorney violate Iowa Rule of Professional Conduct 32:5.3 by failing to instruct nonlawyer staff regarding the information needed to complete federal immigration applications.

The Iowa Supreme Court found that attorney Mike Mulamba Mbanza, an attorney violated Iowa Rule Professional Conduct 32:3.3 and federal regulations by making a false certification on a federal immigration application, and found significant aggravating conduct during the defense against ethics charges. Consequently, the Court imposed a thirty-day suspension of the lawyer’s license and required additional continuing legal education. The Court found no violation of Iowa Rule of Professional Conduct 32:5.3 because the nonlawyer staff in question were only involved with preparing preliminary drafts of documents reviewed by the attorney. Justice McDermott authored the opinion of a unanimous Court.

 

State of Iowa v. Waylon James Brown, No. 22–0324
Opinion date: October 20, 2023
On further review from the Iowa Court of Appeals

Issues:

  • Whether there was sufficient evidence to support the defendant’s conviction for first-degree robbery.
  • Whether the defendant’s convictions for first-degree robbery and willful injury causing serious injury should have been merged.
  • Whether the denial of the defendant’s motion for a mistrial based on trial delays from COVID-19-related juror absences was appropriate.

A unanimous Court held that there was sufficient evidence to support Waylon James Brown’s conviction for first-degree robbery based on the victim’s testimony and the corroborating surveillance video evidence of the attack. The Court also held that the convictions for robbery and willful injury should not be merged as they involved distinct statutory elements and protected against different harms. The Court also found no prejudice against the defendant from the trial delays, affirming the denial of the motion for a mistrial. Chief Justice Christensen authored the opinion of the Court.

 

State of Iowa v. Dalton Wayne Cook, No. 21–0522
Opinion date: October 20, 2023
On further review from the Iowa Court of Appeals

Issues:

  • Whether the evidence was sufficient to support Cook’s conviction for willful injury causing serious injury.
  • Whether Cook’s convictions for willful injury causing serious injury and first-degree robbery should have been merged.

The Court held that the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to support Dalton Wayne Cook’s conviction for willful injury causing serious injury. It also held that the convictions for willful injury causing serious injury and first-degree robbery should not merge, concluding that each offense has distinct elements that do not overlap entirely. Specifically, first-degree robbery can be committed with a dangerous weapon without inflicting serious injury, which is a requisite element of willful injury causing serious injury. As such, the separate convictions protect against different harms, and the merger was not required by law. Chief Justice Christensen authored the opinion of a unanimous Court.

 

State of Iowa v. Johnny Blahnik Church, No. 22–0089
Opinion date: October 27, 2023
On further review from the Iowa Court of Appeals

Issue:

  • Whether the district court abused its discretion and coerced the jury’s verdict by giving a verdict-urging instruction after being informed that the jury was divided and that one juror was not following instructions.

Johnny Blahnik Church, charged with first-degree murder and other offenses after stabbing another person and then misleading investigators, was found guilty of second-degree murder among other charges. The jury deliberations encountered a deadlock, with the jury communicating to the district court that one juror was not following the specific rules set forth by the judge in the court’s jury instructions. The jury reported that despite multiple discussions, this juror remained steadfast, stating, “I don’t care, I’m not changing my opinion.” This led to the district court providing a supplemental verdict-urging instruction. The Court of Appeals had vacated Church’s convictions on the grounds of jury coercion, but the Supreme Court of Iowa evaluated the content of the instruction, the timing of the jury’s verdict post-instruction, and responses during juror polling to conclude otherwise.

Justice McDonald, writing for a unanimous Court, held that the district court’s verdict-urging instruction given was consistent with precedents, did not single out any minority opinion jurors, and emphasized unanimity “if possible” and “if the jurors could conscientiously do so.” The subsequent deliberation lasting several hours and affirmative responses without hesitation during juror polling indicated that the jury’s decision was not coerced.

 

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