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Christensen wins appeal

Conviction for second degree murder reversed and remanded to district court

April 19, 2018
Amy H. Peterson - Staff Writer ( , Estherville News

Wednesday, the Iowa Court of Appeals issued its ruling in the case of Lee Christensen, who was convicted of second degree murder in Emmet County court in the June 6, 2015 death of Thomas Bortvit.

All judges concurred with the reversal except Justice McDonald, who wrote a dissenting opinion.

Christensen will receive a new district court trial.

The appeals court found juror misconduct the primary reason for the new trial.

Judge David Lester gave numerous admonitions for jurors to avoid any form of media, including social media, during the trial.

The ruling states, "Several jurors disregarded these admonitions."

The appeals court said it disagrees "with the district court's key fact-findings supporting the ruling. The rule-based claim of juror misconduct is grounded in the constitution and, specifically, a defendant's right to a fair trial."

The ruling also cited an incident of pre-deliberation Facebook contact, in which a juror reported she logged onto Facebook during a lunch break and noticed a relative of Christensen's was listed on her profile as a "top friend."

The appeals court states, "the contact highlighted jurors' blatant disregard of the district court's unambiguous admonition to refrain from the use of social media during the trial.

The appeals court cited eight jurors who reported during the jury poll hearing some extraneous information regarding rumors of a possible riot or public disturbance, and a ninth juror who heard talk about a riot if Christensen was found not guilty.

"The information received by the jurors came from sources explicitly prohibited by the court's admonition. No juror reported these violations to the clerk or to the judge. We conclude the eight jurors' receipt of extraneous information amounted to juror misconduct," the ruling states.

The appeals court stated it relied on a standard long held on whether information such as what was presented constitutes prejudice against the defendant. In applying that standard, the ruling states the information the jurors discovered "caused jurors to express concerns about their personal safety."

The court also found, "The denial of Christensen's new trial motion amounted to an abuse of discretion."

In his dissent (disagreeing with the majority ruling), Justice McDonald cited two issues he said are "long-resolved issues in the administration of the criminal jury trial.

The two issues are whether "the defendant's right to receive a fair trial was compromised by trying a high-profile cast in a smaller community," and "whether the defendant's right to receive a fair trial was compromised by the injection of information into the trial process due to technological advances in the dissemination of information."

He cited the right to request a change of venue, the process of selecting a fair and impartial jury, and other tools a defendant could use to ensure a fair trial.

Justice McDonald states, "I cannot conclude the district court abused its discretion or otherwise erred in denying the defendant's motion for a new trial. The defendant failed to prove the district court abused its discretion or otherwise erred in denying the motion for a new trialin this case, there is no record of any actor seeking to influence the jury's verdict. Instead, the only evidence here is a Facebook post from an unknown person. During the hearing on the defendant's motion for a new trial, no juror identified any actor allegedly attempting to influence the jury's verdict. The majority opinion does not identify the actor 'calculating' to influence this jury's verdict."

The majority prevailed in the appeal, reversed the conviction and remanded the case to district court. Remand means the case goes back to trial court for further proceedings consistent with the appeal decision, in this case the new trial.



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