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State v. Webster

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 19, 2015

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee,

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On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals. Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Jefferson County, Myron L. Gookin, Judge. The State seeks further review of a court of appeals decision reversing the defendant's conviction of second-degree murder and remanding for a new trial.


Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Rachel C. Regenold, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Kevin Cmelik, Denise A. Timmins, and Heather Ann Mapes, Assistant Attorneys General, and Timothy W. Dille, County Attorney, for appellee.

APPEL, Justice. All justices concur except Wiggins and Zager, JJ., who concur specially, and Hecht, J., who concurs in part and dissents in part.


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APPEL, Justice.

Tyler Webster shot and killed Buddy Frisbie. The State charged Webster with first-degree murder. A jury returned a guilty verdict of second-degree murder. Webster filed a posttrial motion seeking to vacate the conviction on grounds of juror misconduct. Webster also challenged several evidentiary rulings in which the district court refused to admit evidence that reflected poorly on Frisbie. The district court denied Webster's posttrial motion and entered judgment. Webster appealed.

On appeal, Webster claimed his conviction should be vacated because of juror misconduct and juror bias. Specifically, Webster claimed a juror failed to disclose that her daughter was a good friend of Frisbie's stepsister. Webster further claimed the same juror engaged in discussions about the case with third parties, posted comments on Facebook, and " liked" a comment posted by Frisbie's stepmother on Facebook related to the trial. Webster also appealed the judgment based upon assorted errors in the district court's evidentiary rulings.

We transferred the case to the court of appeals. The court of appeals held there was no reversible juror misconduct, but reversed Webster's conviction on the issue of juror bias. We granted further review. For the reasons expressed below, we vacate the decision of the court of appeals

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and affirm the judgment of the district court.

I. Factual Background and Proceedings.

A. Factual Overview.

Webster and Frisbie were long-time friends. On August 25, 2012, Webster, Frisbie, a mutual friend Doug Knight, and Frisbie's girlfriend Shelby Hall attended a party together. They decided to go fishing. Frisbie and Hall went to Frisbie's trailer to retrieve fishing gear, and Webster joined them in the trailer as it began to rain. Knight went to his own trailer nearby.

In Frisbie's trailer, Webster claimed he believed Frisbie was sexually assaulting Hall. He left the trailer, went to his truck, grabbed a gun, came back to the trailer, and shot Frisbie in the face at close range to avoid hitting Hall, whose body partially covered Frisbie.

Hall ran to Knight's trailer and explained what had just happened. Knight retrieved a shotgun, and when Webster approached the trailer with a gun in his hand, Knight told him to put the gun down. Webster complied and Knight called 911. Webster admitted to the dispatcher that he had just shot Frisbie. Dispatch instructed Webster to walk to the end of the driveway, lie on his stomach, and wait for law enforcement to arrive. Law enforcement arrived and arrested Webster without incident.

The State charged Webster with first-degree murder. Prior to the start of trial, the court ruled on motions in limine. Jury selection was not reported. During the week-long trial, the court reminded the jury of its " long admonition" previously given. The long admonition, however, is not part of the record. The first admonition found in the record occurred before the noon recess during the first day of trial. This admonition stated:

And so at this time I will again remind you of that long admonition that I previously read to you about you don't talk between yourselves, you don't talk with anyone else, you don't listen or read any news reports. This matter is not yet submitted so you don't communicate with anyone or each other about what you have heard so far, and you keep an open mind and you don't come to any conclusions.

The court gave a similar rendition of this admonition numerous times throughout the trial.

B. In Camera Examination of the Juror.

After the defense rested, and outside the presence of the jury, the district court alerted the parties to an issue that had arisen in the case. The district court told the parties that the clerk of court and the court attendant had advised the court they had received information that one of the jurors had stated prior to being seated that she would probably never be picked for the jury because " she knew the family." The district court stated the court attendant was concerned because she had sat through voir dire and did not recall the juror saying anything about her connection to either family.

The court then conducted an in camera hearing and the juror was questioned. The juror told the court that her twenty-seven-year-old daughter was friends with Frisbie's half-sister or stepsister as they had attended high school together. The juror stated she did not know Frisbie, and other than telling her daughter she had jury duty, she did not discuss the case with her. She also stated she was friendly with Frisbie's parents, as they worked in the courthouse and she also worked in the courthouse. She also noted she thought she knew a family member of Webster's wife. Webster's attorney noted the juror's

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familiarity with these individuals commenting, " I understand this is a small town." When asked if the relationships would cause her to be biased, the juror stated she would not be biased and would rely upon her notes in making her decision.

The juror further stated she was a Facebook[1] user and knew about the shooting the night of the incident through Facebook. She stated that while she had been on Facebook during the trial playing games, she had " not read anybody else's postings, because [she] kn[ew] if they posted something [she] didn't want to know about it." At the conclusion of the in camera examination of the juror, the defense declined to challenge the juror for cause.

C. Submission of the Case and the Verdict.

The next day, the parties completed closing arguments and the case was submitted to the jury. In its jury instructions, the district court stated, in relevant part:

You may not communicate about this case before reaching your verdict. This includes cell phones, and electronic media such as text messages, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, email, etc. Do not do any research or make any investigation about this case on your own. Also, do not research any information about this case, the law, or the people involved, including the parties, the witnesses, the lawyers, or the judge. This includes using the Internet to research events or people referenced at trial.

After being instructed, the jury deliberated and returned a verdict finding Webster guilty of murder in the second degree in violation of Iowa Code sections 707.1 and 707.3 (2013).

D. Posttrial Motion.

After the verdict, Webster filed a combined motion for new trial and arrest of judgment. Webster asserted that subsequent to the verdict Karen Taylor, a convenience store employee, told the defense that during the course of trial she observed the same juror in the store talking about the trial with two or three other customers. In addition, Webster also asserted the defense received information from Sheila Ross, who employed the defendant's mother as a housekeeper. Ross recalled a conversation she had with the juror a few days after the verdict in which the juror told her that she looked up Knight's age and that he was not as " old" as defense counsel had contended. Ross further indicated the juror informed her that the juror's daughter regarded Frisbie as " the sweetest nicest most soft spoken good guy" and regarded Webster as " loud mouth verbally aggressive and generally not a good person." Ross also stated the juror told her that " no one asked [the juror] to recuse herself for knowing the Frisbie family so she just kept her mouth shut and did not offer that up."

In addition, Webster contended the district court denied him a fair trial by prohibiting him from introducing evidence that Frisbie's ex-wife was nine months pregnant when Frisbie punched her in the stomach and by prohibiting Webster from introducing evidence of Frisbie's felon status and " prison mentality." Webster claimed this information was essential to his defense of justification because it would put his actions in context.

The district court held a hearing on Webster's combined motion. Taylor was the first witness to testify. She stated during the course of the trial she heard the juror discuss the case at a convenience

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store where she worked. Taylor testified she heard a customer state, " [E]veryone knows he's guilty," and the juror responded " Yeah." Taylor also testified the juror told her that Webster " had plead not guilty . . . and [the jury had] to decide guilt or innocence."

Ross testified next. She did not know the juror personally but became familiar with her when she attended jury selection and the trial. Webster's mother had been Ross's housekeeper and Ross considered Webster's mother a friend. Ross testified that after trial she heard the juror in a Hy-Vee store " loudly proclaiming about the trial and the results of the trial . . . and [that] he deserved what he got." Ross further testified the juror indicated that Webster could have gotten help from Knight because Knight was not an old man, as she had " looked up his age." Ross further testified the juror told her that the juror's daughter " knew both [Webster and Frisbie] when they were young, and that [Frisbie] was just this kind, sweet, gentle, polite person" and Webster " was a mouthy, aggressive . . . verbally--you know, aggressive person." When Ross asked the juror why she did not recuse herself like another potential juror did when that juror told the lawyers that the juror knew the Webster and Frisbie families, the juror responded " [T]hey did not ask me, so I didn't tell them." When Ross inquired if the lawyers had asked whether anyone knew the Frisbie family, the juror replied " nope," giving Ross the impression that the juror was proud that she had " dodged that one."

Webster's wife, Ann Webster, also testified at the hearing. She stated she had heard rumors there was a juror who knew the Frisbie family and Ann began looking at Facebook. She testified that about a month before trial, Frisbie's stepmother wrote on the juror's wall, " Have a wonderful day." Ann also testified that on April 11, during the trial, Frisbie's stepmother posted on her own Facebook wall, " Give me strength," and at some point[2] the juror's daughter " [l]ike[d]" the comment.[3] After trial, Ann stated the juror posted a summary of her jury service on the juror's Facebook wall. Also after trial, Ann noted the juror responded to a Facebook posting by Frisbie's stepmother by stating, " I wish you could have gotten murder in lst degree. I can safely say that this was a very hard decision. I could talk to you more about it if you wanted at some point--just message me."

The juror also testified at the posttrial hearing. First, regarding the convenience store communication, the juror admitted there were a few words spoken related to the trial by the customers but stated she wanted to avoid the discussion. She admitted telling the clerk at the store that Webster " pled not guilty [and that y]ou have to prove guilt or innocence." The juror testified that although she may have used the term " Yeah" at one point, she did not agree with a comment from one of the customers that " [e]veryone knows he's

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guilty." The juror denied being influenced by any of the conversations at the convenience store stating, " In no way . . . I was not convinced by anything that had come up previously yet at all. Nothing had convinced me."

With respect to the Hy-Vee incident that occurred after the trial, the juror admitted telling a person at Hy-Vee that she thought her relationship with the Frisbie family would keep her off the jury but that she was not asked about this relationship. At the hearing the juror stated, " I didn't know how to tell. I guess I'm dumb to the rules." The juror claimed Ross then approached her and stated, " You put an innocent man in jail." According to the juror she told Ross,

Who do you believe? You say [Webster is] a good man. The Frisbies are good people. Who do you believe? You go with the evidence that is in front of you, and you go with that. That's what you have to go with.

The juror acknowledged, as Ross had testified, that she looked up Knight's age, but had done so the morning after the trial ended and determined that Knight was about the same age as she was.

Regarding the question of her relationship generally with the Frisbie family, the juror testified she " never kept any of that a secret, that [she] was friends with [the Frisbie family]." When the juror was asked, " Now, you didn't tell us that you knew the Frisbie family until we went back into the judge's chambers in private, correct?" the juror responded:

I did not tell you, but I didn't know how to tell you any other way. I was asked in jury selection up here, I said--you know, we were asked if we knew these people. I didn't know the people I was asked. I honestly thought that, okay, they're not asking for the prosecution, and here's going to come defense and you were gonna ask.
And I was--I'm like okay, how do I do this now? I mean, because I was going to say something then, but I thought we had to wait to be asked specific questions.

The juror also testified about her Facebook activity. She testified she was " friends" with Frisbie's stepmother on Facebook. At the same time, the juror testified she was not " close friends" with the Frisbies. She admitted she " probably" clicked " Like" on Frisbie's stepmother's comment, " Give me strength," but denied that she communicated with Frisbie's stepmother, stating she simply " clicked a button that said, 'like.'" Additionally, although she claimed not to be close to the Frisbie family, she knew it was a good family because her daughter had said so and her daughter would never allow the Frisbie family to babysit for her child if she did not feel that way.

In his combined motion for new trial and arrest of judgment, Webster argued he was denied a fair trial, but cited no constitutional or other provision in support of his motion. At the hearing, Webster's attorney asked the court to set aside the verdict and order a new trial, contending it was " the only way [Webster's] due process rights to a fair trial [could] be protected under both the Iowa Constitution as well as the Federal Constitution."

Citing Iowa Rule of Criminal Procedure 2.24(2)( b )(3)--(4), and (3)( a ), the district court denied Webster's posttrial motion and held that a new trial was not warranted and that judgment should not be arrested " on the basis of juror misconduct," as there was " insufficient evidence of misconduct to set aside the verdict or grant a new trial." The district court also noted that " if there was any undisclosed bias" on the part of the juror, " it was not reflected in

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the verdict in which she participated," nor was there " any indication that any such ostensible bias influenced or infected any discussions or deliberations of the jury as a whole."

Webster appealed and we transferred the case to the court of appeals. The court of appeals determined that while there was no basis to upset the verdict based upon juror misconduct, the district court ruling was reversed on the question of juror bias. We granted further review.

II. Standard of Review.

We review a denial of a motion for a new trial based upon juror misconduct or juror bias for an abuse of discretion. Fry v. Blauvelt, 818 N.W.2d 123, 128 (Iowa 2012) (juror misconduct); State v. Hendrickson, 444 N.W.2d 468, 472 (Iowa 1989) (juror misconduct and bias); see also State v. Johnson, 445 N.W.2d 337, 340 (Iowa 1989) (same). Additionally, we review evidentiary rulings for an abuse of discretion. See State v. Nelson, 791 N.W.2d 414, 419 (Iowa 2010). " An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court exercises its discretion 'on grounds or for reasons clearly untenable or to an extent clearly unreasonable.'" State v. Rodriquez, 636 N.W.2d 234, 239 (Iowa 2001) (quoting State v. Maghee, 573 N.W.2d 1, 5 (Iowa 1971)). " 'A ground or reason is untenable when it is not supported by substantial evidence or when it is based on an erroneous application of the law.'" Id. (quoting Graber v. City of Ankeny, 616 N.W.2d 633, 638 (Iowa 2001)). The burden is on the party seeking to overturn the verdict. See State v. Henning, 545 N.W.2d 322, 324-25 (Iowa 1996).[4]

We review ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims de novo. State v. Halverson, 857 N.W.2d 632, 634 (Iowa 2015).

In order to succeed on an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim, a defendant must prove each of the following two elements by a preponderance of the evidence: (1) trial counsel failed to perform an essential duty, and (2) this failure resulted in prejudice.

State v. Dalton, 674 N.W.2d 111, 119 (Iowa 2004); see also Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 2064, 80 L.Ed.2d 674, 693 (1984). Therefore, if the claim lacks prejudice and can be decided on that ground alone, we need not address whether the attorney ...

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