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Christensen case Attorneys argue conclusions of Oct. 18 jury poll

By Staff | Nov 2, 2016

Attorneys for the defendant and the State turned in their briefs of supplemental information after an Oct. 18 jury poll hearing, in which the court heard from all 12 jurors from the trial.

Lee S. Christensen, 19, was convicted July 1, 2016, of murder in the second degree in the June 6, 2015 shooting death of Thomas Lee Bortvit.

Defense attorney Leon Spies of Iowa City provided information in a supplemental brief and memorandum in support of Christensen’s motion for a new trial.

The brief submitted by Spies said, “Christensen respectfully contends that jury misconduct arising from violation of the court’s instructions compels a finding that there is a reasonable probability that the jury’s deliberations were affected, and that the appearance of jury impropriety undermines confidence in the outcome of the case.”

Spies defined the legal principles of juror misconduct and juror bias. Juror misconduct, Spies said, “relates to the actions of a juror…which impair the integrity of the fact-finding process at trial.”?These actions are often contrary to the judge’s instructions.

Before the trial began, Judge David Lester gave the jurors Instruction 38, which admonished the jurors from speaking with each other or people outside the courtroom about the case, and from viewing or listening to any media from any source, about the case. Throughout the trial, Judge Lester reminded the jurors, saying they were still under the rule of Instruction 38 as they went to break, or home for the day.

Spies said a biased juror is simply unable to come to a fair decision in a case based upon the facts and law presented at trial. A juror may be biased without engaging in misconduct; a fair and impartial juror may nonetheless engage in juror misconduct.

Spies said, “In order to be entitled to a new trial based upon juror misconduct, the (1) evidence from the jurors must consist only of objective facts as to what actually occurred in or out of the jury room bearing on misconduct; (2) the acts or statements complained of must exceed tolerable bounds of jury deliberations; and (3) it must appear the misconduct was calculated to, and with reasonable probability didinfluence the verdict.”

Coleman McAllister, assistant state attorney general, and Doug Hansen, Emmet County attorney, submitted a memorandum on the jury poll, and further resisting the defense motion for a new trial.

McAllister and Hansen said, “The State requests that the Court overrule Defendant’s Motion for New Trial as Defendant has not established the existence of factual or legal grounds to support his Motion for New Trial. The Court should uphold the jury’s verdict and set a sentencing date.”

Spies said there “can be no doubt,”?that any exposure to any juror to social media postings or conversations with family members about the possibility of a riot or threats to jurors in the event Christensen was not found guilty of murder constitutes misconduct.

Spies said, “That Christensen was found guilty of the lesser-included offense of second degree murder does not in any way diminish the conclusion that prejudice infected the outcome of his case.”

In affirming Christensen’s motion for a new trial, Spies said, “Lee Christensen’s right to have his guilt or innocence determined by an unbiased jury, and his right to due process of law, as guaranteed by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and Article I, Sections 9 and 10 of the Iowa Constitution, were violated by the jury’s misconduct and bias that infected its deliberations. Christensen is entitled to a new trial untainted by misconduct.”

The State argued, “The Court should keep in mind that three and one-half months had passed since the jury had completed its service in this case. Any possible discrepancies in the jurors’ recollection of events must take into account the passage of time since the trial. The weight of the credible evidence presented at the hearing on Oct. 18, 2016, supports a finding that any discussion of the possibility of rioting did not occur until after the jury had reached its verdict and presented it in open court.”

The State argued the defendant has not met his burden of establishing his claim of juror misconduct.

The State said,?”Defendant, a high school senior, star athlete, and member of a prominent and well-known local family, was accused of murdering another young man, a local college student who also came from a well-known local family. Because Defendant chose not to seek to change the venue of the trial (as was his right), trial was held in Emmet County.”

Addressing the request of jurors to be escorted to their vehicles, the State said, “During closing arguments, the State requested that the jury return a verdict of guilty to the charge of Murder in the First Degree while the Defendant alternatively requested that the jury return a verdict of guilty only to the lesser included charge of Voluntary Manslaughter. At the conclusion of their deliberations, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on the charge of Murder in the Second Degree, a result not requested by either party. After returning their verdict, the jury likely reasonably assumed that their decision might disappoint both parties as well as their respective supporters.”

A new trial or a sentencing date will be set after Judge Lester considers the legal issues raised in these documents, as well as the ones submitted earlier arguing the merits of a new trial.