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State v. Vaughan

Supreme Court of Iowa

February 6, 2015

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee,

Page 493

On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals. Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Lee County, John M. Wright, Judge. The State seeks further review of a court of appeals decision reversing the defendant's first-degree arson conviction and remanding for a new trial based on pretrial counsel's conflict of interest.

Mark D. Fisher of Nidey Erdahl Tindal & Fisher, Cedar Rapids, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Heather Mapes and Kevin Cmelik, Assistant Attorneys General, Michael P. Short, County Attorney, and Clinton R. Boddicker, Assistant County Attorney, for appellee.

MANSFIELD, Justice. All justices concur except Appel and Hecht, JJ., who concur specially.


Page 494


In this case, we are asked to determine whether a new trial is required when the district court replaces a conflicted defense attorney with a conflict-free attorney more than three months before trial, and there is no showing that the previous conflict had ongoing adverse effects on the representation. We conclude a new trial is not required in these circumstances. For this reason, we affirm the district court's judgment of conviction and sentence. We also vacate the decision of the court of appeals ordering a new trial.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

Around 2:30 a.m. on October 20, 2011, police and firefighters responded to a report of a fire at 2902 Avenue M in Fort Madison. When officers arrived, a detached garage at that address was fully engulfed in flames. Robert Vaughan and his mother, Marcia Lawson, both of whom lived at 2902 Avenue M, were outside the home. Their house is approximately thirty feet from the detached garage.

Vaughan and Lawson kept a number of dogs on their property, who were normally caged in a kennel next to the garage. However, when police and firefighters showed up, these dogs were either free in the yard or secured inside a vehicle. Vaughan later claimed they had been locked in the kennel for the night but had escaped during the fire. Neighbors disputed this, stating that they had noticed the dogs--unusually--were not in their kennel that evening. Also, although Vaughan and his mother's vehicles were normally parked next to the garage, on the night of the fire they were parked elsewhere on the property away from the garage.

As firefighters worked to extinguish the garage fire and keep it from spreading, one firefighter, Jared Siefken, noticed a glow coming from a window on the south side of the house itself. Siefken looked into the window and saw a small fire burning. He broke the window and used a hose on the fire. Siefken and another firefighter then entered the house to confirm the interior fire had been extinguished. They spotted a clear plastic bag full of various medications placed on a chair by the front door of the house. Vaughan later acknowledged he takes a number of daily medications.

The interior house fire was contained within a computer room at the back of the house. Firefighters also succeeded in putting out the garage fire, but that structure collapsed from the damage the blaze had inflicted.

After ensuring the fires were no longer a hazard, the fire chief summoned a special agent from the division of the state fire marshal to the scene. The special agent concluded that the fire in the computer room appeared to have two separate points of origin, neither of which was related to the garage fire. He also came upon what

Page 495

he believed to be pieces of a broken " Molotov cocktail," or an improvised incendiary device comprised of a glass bottleneck and a cloth " wick." An investigation later found gasoline on the bottleneck, the wick, and the nearby carpet.

It also turned out that Vaughan had put a number of items up for sale the day before the fires, including a four-wheeler, a golf cart, and a lawn mower. In addition, Vaughan had arranged for a boat belonging to a third party to be moved from 2902 Avenue M to a different property. Vaughan later said he did this because his mother wanted the boat moved off the property so the weeds could be cleared out before the winter.

Vaughan's mother, who owned the house, submitted an insurance claim approximately eight weeks after the fires. In addition to seeking compensation for building damage, Lawson claimed about $25,000 in personal property losses, representing property that she or Vaughan had owned that was destroyed in the fires. The personal property itemization took up six pages of the claim.

The insurance company hired an electrical engineering expert who investigated the scene of the fires and determined neither the house fire nor the garage fire had an electrical cause. The insurance company also examined Vaughan under oath in connection with the claim. The insurance company subsequently denied the insurance claim.

On February 24, 2012, the State charged Vaughan with arson in the first degree. See Iowa Code § § 712.1(1), .2 (2011). The court appointed W. Jon Henson, an assistant public defender, to represent Vaughan.

On March 25, Henson was also appointed to represent George Cline, Jr., in an unrelated case. Cline pled guilty in his case on May 31 and was sentenced on June 1.

On May 31, Henson and Cline were meeting before Cline's plea hearing. Henson mentioned that he was preparing for Vaughan's trial. Cline told Henson he wanted to speak to the prosecutor about Vaughan. Cline did not disclose to Henson the information he had about Vaughan. Henson relayed Cline's request by telephone to the prosecutor.[1]

On August 7, a police investigator and a representative from the fire marshal's office met with Cline. Cline gave a statement in which he claimed Vaughan had asked him, prior to the October 20, 2011 blaze, to start a fire on Vaughan's property in return for a third of the insurance recovery. Cline also claimed to have observed Vaughan making an inventory of the items in the garage, supposedly for the purpose of committing insurance fraud.

On August 15, 2012, the State listed Cline as a witness in Vaughan's case. On August 22, Henson filed a motion to withdraw from representing Vaughan on behalf of the public defender's office, indicating that office had a conflict of interest due to

Page 496

the fact it represented a witness against Vaughan. The court granted Henson's motion to withdraw without a hearing and appointed Gordon Liles to represent Vaughan that same day.

Henson had taken a number of depositions before withdrawing. Liles took additional depositions and filed a number of motions. Indeed, by October 18, Liles had filed an application to exceed fee guidelines stating he had already spent 45.7 hours on the case. On December 14, shortly before trial, Liles filed a further application stating that he had spent a total of 101 hours in pretrial preparation on the Vaughan case.

Vaughan's trial took place over three days from December 17 to December 19. Various police officers, firefighters, and neighbors testified for the State, as did the special agent of the state fire marshal, a Division of Criminal Investigation criminalist, and the insurance company's investigator and electrical engineer. The State also introduced into evidence an edited version of Vaughan's sworn statement to the insurance company.

In addition, the State called Cline. According to Cline's testimony, he had known Vaughan since 2008. Sometime in August 2011, Cline was at Vaughan and Lawson's house while Vaughan was making an inventory of his belongings. Vaughan asked Cline if he was interested in making some money and whether he would be interested in starting a fire for him. Cline said he laughed off the proposal at the time.

Cline explained that he was still in jail for contempt of court and absence from custody at a halfway house at the time of his testimony. He also stated he had asked to speak to law enforcement about Vaughan because he " wasn't going to lie about it," and not in exchange for favorable treatment by the prosecution.

In cross-examining Cline, Vaughan's attorney Liles went over Cline's extensive criminal history. This history included convictions for assault with a dangerous weapon; operating while intoxicated and possession of illegal drugs; possession of drugs, second offense; going armed; possession of precursors with the intent to manufacture methamphetamine; absence from custody; criminal mischief; and seven separate convictions for driving while barred. Cline acknowledged on cross-examination he had forty-eight criminal convictions and had been to prison six separate times. Cline also admitted he did not try to tell anyone in law enforcement about his conversations with Vaughan until months after the fires occurred. Vaughan's attorney further established that while absent from custody, Cline had an altercation with his girlfriend and attempted to kill himself. Finally, Cline admitted on cross-examination that he was aware " prosecutors can certainly do things for you."

Neither Vaughan nor Lawson testified at trial. Vaughan called two witnesses in his defense. First, a neighbor testified, contrary to the testimony of other neighbors, that Vaughan's vehicles had no typical parking spot either near or away from the garage. Second, an Iowa Department of Human Services case manager testified that Vaughan was partially disabled, needed a walker to ...

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