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Vaughn v. State

Court of Appeal of Iowa

October 23, 2013

DONALD A. VAUGHN, Applicant-Appellant,
STATE OF IOWA, Respondent-Appellee.

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Michael D. Huppert, Judge.

Donald Vaughn appeals from the district court's dismissal of his application for postconviction relief, contending the postconviction court erred in its evidentiary rulings and that his criminal trial and appellate counsel were ineffective.

Felicia M. Bertin Rocha, Urbandale, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Kevin R. Cmelik, Assistant Attorney General, John P. Sarcone, County Attorney, and Dan C. Voogt, Assistant County Attorney, for appellee State.

Heard by Potterfield, P.J., and Mullins and Bower, JJ.


Donald Vaughn appeals from the district court's dismissal of his application for postconviction relief, contending the postconviction court erred in its evidentiary rulings, and that his criminal trial and appellate counsel were ineffective. Because postconviction proceedings are not available to retry the applicant's criminal case and because Vaughn failed to establish either appellate or trial counsel was ineffective, we affirm.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

The facts leading up to Vaughn's murder conviction were thoroughly set out by the district court in its ruling on this application for postconviction relief.

The murder charge against Vaughn stemmed from the killing of Matthew Glover on or about December 19, 2005. Glover was reported missing by his mother on December 22, 2005, after he did not return home to Detroit after a trip to Des Moines. On December 27, 2005, Matthew Martinez came to the Des Moines Police Department to be interviewed regarding Glover's apparent disappearance. In the interview, Martinez told the police that he and Vaughn had travelled from Des Moines to Detroit earlier in December to pick up Glover, and then returned with him as well as a large quantity of marijuana. The marijuana was then repackaged for resale.
Martinez told the police that Vaughn shot Glover while he and Martinez were in Vaughn's vehicle (an SUV owned by Vaughn's girlfriend, Jamella Coplen). Martinez identified the location of the shooting as a car wash at S.E. 22nd Street and Park Avenue in Des Moines. Martinez then told the police that he and Vaughn drove to a cornfield in the vicinity of Army Post Road and S.E. 36th Street in Des Moines, where Glover's body was dumped. Martinez reported that Vaughn stopped at a local convenience store to purchase some cleaning products after the body was dumped. Video from the store confirmed that Vaughn was there at approximately the time Martinez placed him there. Martinez went on to tell police that Vaughn subsequently told him that he had burned the vehicle at an unspecified location.
Martinez took police to the area where the body was dumped, where it was eventually located. Vaughn's vehicle had been located outside of Newton by local law enforcement on December 20, 2005, in a condition that was consistent with having been "torched" or burned from the inside. On December 28, 2005, Newton law enforcement was notified that the Des Moines Police Department was looking for a vehicle that matched the description of the vehicle found outside Newton. The vehicle was then turned over to Des Moines law enforcement for testing. A small sample of blood which was taken from the carpet of the interior of the vehicle was confirmed as having come from Glover. Although it was ultimately determined that a .45 caliber weapon had been used to shoot Glover (based on the bullets removed from his body at autopsy), no weapon was ever recovered.
Vaughn was interviewed by Des Moines police also on December 27, 2005. During the interview, Vaughn told the police that he had taken Glover to the bus station on December 19 so that he could return to Detroit. He also told the police that that the SUV had probably been repossessed by the loan company that held the title to the vehicle. Vaughn conceded in his trial testimony that both of these statements were false. No blood evidence was ever tied to any of Vaughn's clothing. On the other hand, Martinez informed police that he had noticed a small spot of blood (presumably Glover's) on his shoelace immediately after the shooting, which prompted him to drive to his father's home in Carlisle and burn the shoes and other articles of his clothing in a burn pile.
The trial strategy adopted and pursued on Vaughn's behalf was to attack the credibility of Martinez as the purported eyewitness to the shooting, and to emphasize the circumstantial evidence (or lack thereof) that supported Vaughn's contention that he had no connection to the shooting. Regarding Martinez, [Vaugh's trial attorney, Roger] Owens focused on the many inconsistencies in the two statements he gave the police, the considerable delay between the shooting and his going to the police (during which time he met with Vaughn on more than one occasion), the fact that he (and another prosecution witness, Jesse Smith) went into the military shortly after the shooting and that he burned his clothes and shoes to remove any possible physical evidence which might link him to Glover's killing. The trial strategy also focused on the long friendship between Vaughn and Glover and the lack of any physical evidence tying him [Vaughn] to the shooting (specifically no connection between him and any weapon matching the caliber of the bullets used to kill Glover, as well as no blood on the clothing he was wearing on the day of the shooting, as confirmed by the surveillance video taken at a local Walgreens and the convenience store).
Vaughn testified at trial that he met up with Martinez in the early evening of December 19, 2005, at which time Martinez told Vaughn that Glover had taken a cab to the bus station to return to Detroit. It was also in this conversation that Vaughn claimed that Martinez told him that he and Glover had earlier shot and killed someone inside Vaughn's vehicle during a botched attempt at a robbery while selling some of the marijuana brought back from Detroit. He further testified that he and Martinez went to the car wash in an unsuccessful effort to wash off the blood from inside the vehicle. After Vaughn instructed Martinez to clean the vehicle, Martinez and Smith left with the vehicle in an effort to do so. When Martinez returned with the vehicle, it smelled heavily of gasoline. Vaughn explained that he and Martinez then drove east on Interstate 80 (with Smith travelling behind) and eventually burned the vehicle outside Newton when he could no longer take the smell of gasoline coming from the vehicle. He testified that he did not go to the police earlier because he wanted to protect Glover from being implicated in the purported robbery. He went on to testify that when he came in to talk to the police on December 27 that he still thought that they were focusing on the claimed robbery and had no idea that they were investigating Glover's murder. Once it was clear that the police were talking to him about the murder, he ended the interview and requested an attorney.

Vaughn was found guilty as charged[1] and his motion for new trial and motion in arrest of judgment were denied. Over Vaughn's pro se objections, his direct appeal was dismissed by the Iowa Supreme Court as frivolous.

Vaughn filed an application for postconviction relief alleging his trial counsel, Roger Owens, and appellate counsel, Scott Bandstra, were ineffective in a number of respects. With respect to Owens, Vaughn asserted he was ineffective in failing to: (1) present the theory at trial that someone else committed the murder, (2) prevent impeachment of both Vaughn and defense witnesses through their prior convictions, (3) cross-examine certain witnesses regarding their plea agreements, (4) object to certain opinion testimony presented by the State, (5) have potentially exculpatory evidence tested, (6) move for a new trial on the basis that the verdict was contrary to the weight of the evidence, (7) sever the murder charge from the remaining counts, and (8) retain an expert to address the trajectories of the bullets that killed the decedent. Vaughn also contended the trial court erred in a number of its evidentiary rulings, as well as in failing to submit a jury instruction on corroboration of accomplice testimony, failing to provide the jury with certain requested testimony, and failing to grant Vaughn's motion for judgment of acquittal. Vaughn contended Bandstra as appellate counsel was ineffective in failing to adequately address all these issues.

Vaughn's motion for an expert witness at the State's expense was denied by the postconviction court because the proposed expert, Richard Ernst, was hired in the underlying criminal trial, but was not called to testify. The postconviction court found Ernst could be deposed as a fact witness on the issue of whether the decision not to call him at the criminal trial constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. Vaughn later moved to have the witness reimbursed at a rate more than allowed for a fact witness, which the postconviction court also rejected. Vaughn cancelled Ernst's deposition.

Vaughn submitted a witness list before the postconviction trial indicating the intent to call several witnesses from the criminal trial: Victor Murillo, the State's firearms expert; Dr. Gregory Schmunk, the medical examiner; and Detectives Judy Stanley, Carl Wycoff, and David Seybert. The State filed a motion in limine to exclude the testimony of these witnesses, arguing Vaughn was improperly attempting to retry the underlying fact questions and credibility determinations of the criminal trial. Before trial was to begin, the court heard arguments on the motion to exclude. Vaughn's postconviction counsel argued that the witnesses were necessary to "point out enough discrepancies" and "show that the weight of the evidence was that Mr. Vaughn did not commit this murder." The court ruled:

[T]he entirety of the trial record will be before me, including the testimony of the five witnesses who are identified earlier on the Applicant's supplemental witness and exhibit list. It would be inappropriate and duplicative to allow. However you have captioned it, Ms. Rocha, it's clear to me that you're attempting to retry the merits of the criminal trial which is not appropriate for today. If a new trial is granted, then you start from the beginning and that defense can be restructured however Mr. Vaughn and his counsel see fit. But for today the only issues that are before me are whether trial and appellate counsel were effective.

The postconviction trial proceeded with the testimony of Vaughn, Owens, and Bandstra. Post-trial briefs were to be filed by December 22, 2010. Vaughn's counsel moved twice for additional time to file the post-trial brief, contending the postconviction trial transcript was not yet available. The court denied the motions.

The postconviction court entered its written ruling on January 7, 2011, finding Owen's trial strategy was not unreasonable and rejecting Vaughn's current complaint that "Owens should have been more vigorous in his trial strategy by engaging in considerable testing of potentially exculpatory evidence and hiring an expert to 're-create' the scene inside the SUV in an effort to somehow establish that Vaughn could not have been the shooter." The court found "[s]uch activity was inconsistent with the trial strategy outlined above, and unnecessary when measured by the fundamental premise of Vaughn's defense—that he was not in the car when the fatal shots were fired."

The court also rejected Vaughn's claim that Owens had not pursued a theory that someone else shot Glover, pointing out "that is exactly the conclusion Owens wanted the jury to draw." The court observed that the trial defense

focused on establishing Martinez as the person who committed the murder. It was Martinez who by his own testimony was present in the vehicle when Glover was shot. It was Martinez who was the only person to have blood on his clothing immediately after the shooting. It was Martinez who admitted to burning his own clothes and shoes to destroy the physical evidence from the crime. Finally, it was Martinez who waited over a week to contact the police with what he claimed to know about the shooting, and then provided inconsistent information. Vaughn is not in a position to now claim that his counsel somehow failed to argue a circumstantial case that Martinez was in fact the person who killed Glover.

The court also found that because the "competing presentations at trial focused on the credibility of Martinez and Vaughn, " Vaughn's claim trial counsel was ineffective in failing to file a motion for new trial based on the argument the verdict was contrary to the ...

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