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Judge rules: No new trial for Christensen

By Staff | Dec 7, 2016

Judge David Lester filed a ruling that was entered Monday, denying Lee Christensen a new trial.

Christensen was convicted July 1 of murder in the second degree in the shooting death of Thomas Bortvit, which took place June 6, 2015 in Estherville.

Judge Lester wrote, “…the record was left open for the filing of post-hearing briefs, which was completed on October 31, 2016. Defendant’s Motion for New Trial was then deemed submitted for final ruling on that date.”

Defense attorney Leon Spies filed a response to the State’s supplementary brief Nov. 2.

The defense motion establishing a parent-child privilege that would prohibit the State from offering the content of statements and text messages sent by Christensen to his parents as evidence, and that the same privilege would have prevented Christensen’s parents from testifying against him at trial. Judge Lester wrote in his order that upon reviewing the defense motion, the State resistence, and its own order, along with Iowa law, that this ground for a new trial must be overruled.

Judge Lester also listed his reasons for overruling the motion for a new trial on the ground of alleged juror misconduct and bias. Lester said the juror testimony during the October 18 hearing for this purpose supported the case that any discussion of possible unrest due to a particular verdict happened after the jury had reached its verdict and presented it in the courtroom.

The jurors testified that they felt unsafe after delivering their verdict due to perceived tensions between supporters of the Christensen and Bortvit families, and asked for law enforcement escorts to their vehicles, which was accomplished.

In his “Conclusions of Law,” Lester cited an Iowa appellate case, State v. Neitzel, which ruled, “The trial court grants a new trial only in the exceptional case where a miscarriage of justice may have resulted.”

Judge Lester addressed the issue of the Facebook activity about a possible riot if the jury did not deliver a verdict of first degree murder: “After objectively considering the testimony of all of the jurors, the Court is unable to conclude with a reasonable probability that any statement made by a juror about the risk of civil unrest if the jury did not return a guilty verdict in any way influenced the jury’s verdict in this case,” Lester wrote.

Murder in the second degree carries a maximum term of 50 years. According to the Iowa Department of Corrections, 70 percent of the term, or 35 years, must be served before the person is eligible for parole or work release.

An offender who has spent time in county jail pending trial and sentencing, and has not furnished bail, or is held on an unbailable offense (including Christensen, after he was convicted of second degree murder), the person will be given credit for time already served.

The director may approve a reduction of up to 365 days of a sentence for a person who performs an “exemplary act.”?The definition of an act as exemplary is up to the individual warden.

The next step is the sentencing hearing Dec. 21 at 9:30 a.m. in the Emmet County Courthouse.

Christensen’s due process includes opportunities for appeal, including the appeal of his convicted charge and sentence.