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Wright v. State

Court of Appeals of Iowa

March 8, 2017

SAMUEL MONTEZ WRIGHT, Applicant-Appellant,
STATE OF IOWA, Respondent-Appellee.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Woodbury County, Edward A. Jacobson, Judge.

         The applicant appeals from the district court's denial of his application for postconviction relief. AFFIRMED.

          Zachary S. Hindman of Mayne, Arneson, Hindman, Hisey & Daane, Sioux City, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Sharon K. Hall, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee State.

          Considered by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Potterfield and Bower, JJ.

          POTTERFIELD, Judge.

         Samuel Wright appeals from the district court's denial of his application for postconviction relief (PCR). Wright maintains there is newly discovered evidence that warrants a new trial, and he raises several issues regarding the effectiveness of previous counsel.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

A panel of our court found the facts as follows on Wright's direct appeal:
On January 17, 2008, two hunters discovered the frozen, shirtless, dead body of Zachary Cooper lying face down on a dirt road, near Lawton-about ten miles east of Sioux City. Cooper had been shot twice.
Wright was subsequently prosecuted for robbing, kidnapping, and murdering Cooper. The State's evidence showed that on January 15, 2008, Wright, Jeremy Williams, Nick Perez, Ray Dukes, Teddy Case, Matthew Dean, and one other individual named "Wayne" were hanging out in Perez's Sioux City apartment. While sitting around, various individuals in the group decided that they wanted to smoke some marijuana. Therefore, Perez volunteered to contact his friend Cooper about purchasing a quarter pound of marijuana. Cooper lived in a house about a block away that belonged to David Myers's father.
Dean and Case both testified they heard some discussion in the group about robbing Cooper. They claimed Wright was part of the discussion. Dukes testified that he heard Case and Perez talk about a robbery. Dean testified that Dukes was in on "the talk about robbing" Cooper. Case admitted he had previously testified in deposition that the plan to rob Cooper came from Dukes, among others. However, Dean and Case (as well as "Wayne") left Perez's apartment before any marijuana was delivered.
After Perez visited with Cooper regarding the possibility of buying marijuana, Cooper went to Perez's apartment to make sure the group had enough money to pay for it. According to Myers, who was with Cooper that afternoon, Cooper was nervous about dealing with Perez. However, when Cooper returned from Perez's apartment, he told Myers everything was all right, explaining that just Perez, Wright, and Williams were there, and that he "saw the money."
Perez went to visit Cooper again (this time with Williams) to finalize the deal. According to Perez, during this meeting, Cooper stated that he "wanted to make sure things go straight. If things boil down wrong then he would have to do something to [Williams] and his family." Williams then replied, "Dude, don't threaten my f-- -ing family." Cooper answered that he wasn't threatening Williams's family. Perez attempted to calm Williams down and eventually they left and walked back to Perez's apartment. On the walk home, Williams was still angry about the threat and stated, "Oh, I got this."
According to Myers, Cooper obtained the marijuana from his source, left for Perez's apartment around 6:30 or 7:00 p.m., and never returned. Perez and Dukes testified at trial as to what happened next, although there were a number of discrepancies between their respective narratives.[1]
Perez testified that once Cooper arrived at the apartment with the marijuana, Wright pulled out a gun. According to Perez, Williams had been outside moving his car (a Mercury Marquis), but he came running in and "punched Zachary Cooper, like three times in the face. And the second and third time he punched, Zach's nose started streaking blood." Perez further testified that Dukes exited the bathroom after Cooper was knocked down and asked, "[W]hat the hell is going on?" After seeing Cooper's bloody face, Dukes said, "Oh s---. I'm staying out of this." Perez testified he too "was all scared, " and "was freaking out." He ran into the bathroom and locked the door. After a minute or two, Williams began banging on the bathroom door telling Perez to come out. When Perez left the bathroom, Williams told Perez to go wait out in his car and threatened "you better not screw us over or I'm going to screw your life over." The car doors were locked, so Perez waited next to the vehicle until everyone else came outside. At that point, Wright, wielding the gun, told him to get in the vehicle along with the others.
Dukes testified that after Cooper arrived with the marijuana, Williams started punching him. Dukes testified that Wright also "started swinging on [Cooper] and pulled the gun out." According to Dukes, Wright and Williams made Cooper take off his shirt to be sure he wasn't wearing a wire.[2] Wright and Williams then led Cooper, bloody and shirtless, out of the apartment and into the car. Wright had his gun trained on Cooper. Wright and Williams also told Dukes to get in the car. Dukes testified he did so "cuz I didn't want to get shot."
Williams drove the car, with Perez in the front passenger seat, and Dukes, Cooper, and Wright from left to right in the rear. Cooper's blood was later found in the middle rear of the car where both Perez and Dukes testified he had been sitting. According to Perez, when Wright entered the vehicle he said to Williams, "you know where to go, just start driving."
Wright forced Cooper to keep his head down. Perez testified that Cooper was praying for his life. Perez also testified that Wright observed a tattoo on Cooper's chest, which he thought was a sign for the Antichrist, and told Cooper he was "going to put the devil in his grave." Dukes testified that Williams commented he was "going to show [Cooper] what to do when you threaten people's family." Perez also recalled Williams saying, "Nobody threatens me and my family and gets away with it" Williams drove the car into rural Woodbury County. Eventually, Williams stopped the car in a rural farm driveway off of 170th Street near Lawton. Perez testified that Wright told Williams to leave the headlights on because "he was going to do it like a movie on Showtime." Perez remained in the car, but he recalled that Dukes momentarily left the car to smoke a cigarette and go to the bathroom. Perez testified that Wright and Williams had Cooper kneel down in front of the car and put his hands on the hood. According to Perez, Wright had to manually load the gun. Wright shot Cooper, and Cooper fell from his view. Wright then handed the gun to Williams, they reloaded the gun, and Williams also shot Cooper.
Dukes testified that when the car stopped near Lawton, he was directed out of the vehicle so Cooper could get out on his side. Dukes recalled that Wright handed his gun to Williams, and told him "to do what he do." Williams then shot Cooper. Dukes testified that when Williams shot Cooper, Wright had his hand on his shoulder telling him he "was going to watch." Williams gave the gun back to Wright. Wright had to reload the gun with a single bullet because it was missing its clip.[3] Wright then stood over Cooper's body and shot him as well.
On the drive home, both Perez and Dukes testified that they were warned to stay quiet. According to Perez, when he commented that it was stupid for Wright and Williams to have shot Cooper, Wright directed Williams to stop the car, put the gun against the back of his head, and said, "If [Perez] want to talk we can take him out right now and do him too." Dukes testified that Wright told him that "he will kill my son" if he (Dukes) told anyone.
When the group returned to Sioux City, Williams stopped at a Kum & Go for gas. Williams and Perez were caught on the surveillance video inside the store. Surveillance photography taken outside the store showed Williams' car and four individuals. Although the outside images were dark and fuzzy, at trial, Perez and Dukes identified Wright as one of the individuals.
The foursome then returned to Perez's apartment where Wright and Williams cleaned Cooper's blood off of the wall. According to Perez, Cooper's clothes and the gun were placed into a garbage sack and thrown into ["the garbage dumpster that was outside of somebody's yard on the curb."] Perez, Wright, and Williams then went over to "Wayne's" to smoke the marijuana taken from Cooper, while Dukes went to his girlfriend's house.
Around 10:30 or 11:00 p.m., Perez's mother arrived at Perez's apartment to stay the night. She noticed a strong odor of cleaning fluid. Wright and Williams were present, and Williams was "acting really nervous." She also testified that when [he] went to bed, Perez "came over and gave me a big hug and . . . he just said that he was sorry for getting involved with the wrong people and causing problems and that something bad had happened."
As noted, Cooper's frozen, shirtless body was discovered two days later lying face down in the snow. Apparently, Cooper did not die immediately from his wounds, but was able to walk approximately three-quarters of a mile before he collapsed and died. Police immediately began investigating the murder scene, and the following day discovered two .380 caliber shell casings and a .380 caliber bullet. At trial, the State offered evidence that in September 2007, a search of Wright's apartment had uncovered seventeen rounds of .380 caliber ammunition. The State also offered evidence that Wright had offered to sell someone a handgun that was either a .357 or a .380 with no clip in August or September 2007.
Despite the cleaning efforts, Cooper's blood was found on an envelope on the living room bookshelf of Perez's apartment. Cooper's blood was also found on Williams's coat sleeve and left breast pocket.
Wright was interviewed by police on January 20. He claimed he had not left his home at all on the 15th, claimed he did not know Dukes, claimed he did not know where Lawton was, and claimed he had never met Cooper in his life. A recording of this interview was played for the jury at trial.
On January 28, 2008, Wright was charged by trial information with first-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping, and first-degree robbery. . . .
Trial commenced on August 13, 2008. . . .
. . . .
Wright subsequently took the stand in his own defense. He denied robbing, kidnapping, or murdering Cooper. He denied that he was the fourth person shown on the Kum & Go surveillance photographs. He testified that he was at Perez's apartment early on the evening of January 15. However, he claimed that he left by foot to go to his old apartment prior to Cooper's arrival at Perez's place and never even saw Cooper that evening. Wright testified that after he left Perez's apartment, he walked down the street where he met a friend "Troy" and decided to help him move. Wright did not provide Troy's last name. Troy did not testify.
To explain how his cell phone might have been in Lawton when and where Cooper was murdered, Wright testified that he had inadvertently left that phone behind and that he recovered it from Williams's car later that night. To explain why Perez's mother saw him late at night at Perez's apartment, Wright testified that after helping Troy move, he needed to be picked up by his girlfriend. According to Wright, he walked the six blocks from Troy's apartment to Perez's apartment in order to save his girlfriend six blocks of driving. To account for why Perez's mother smelled a strong odor of cleaning fluid when she returned to Perez's apartment late on the evening of January 15 (and saw Wright), Wright claimed that he told Perez that day to clean up his apartment "for your momma" and "spray some smell good."
To try to establish an alibi, Wright also offered the testimony of his girlfriend that she had encountered Wright alone between 6:00 and 6:30 p.m., and again around 9:30 p.m. on the 15th when she picked him up outside Perez's apartment.
The State played the DVD of Wright's original police interview where he made a number of statements that were inconsistent with Wright's trial testimony, including that he had not left his place at all on the 15th.
Both parties had previously proposed that versions of Iowa's accomplice corroboration instruction be given to the jury.[4]However, at the conclusion of the evidence, the district court declined to give such an instruction, stating that it "just doesn't find anything in the record of significance and far less than what would be necessary to make these two fellows [Perez and Dukes] an accomplice." Wright objected to the court's failure to give the accomplice instruction.
The case was submitted to the jury, and Wright was found guilty on all three counts. Wright was sentenced to incarceration for life on the murder and kidnapping convictions, and to an indeterminate term of twenty-five years for his robbery conviction.

State v. Wright, No. 08-1737, 2010 WL 200052, at *1-6 (Iowa Ct. App. Jan. 22, 2010).

         Following his conviction and unsuccessful direct appeal, Wright filed an application for postconviction relief in August 2010. In April 2011, he amended the application. A hearing was held on April 23, 2015, following which the district court denied Wright's application. Wright appeals.

         II. Standard of Review.

         Generally, we review PCR actions for correction of errors at law. Millam v. State, 745 N.W.2d 719, 721 (Iowa 2008). However, we review claims of ineffective assistance de novo. Id.

         III. Discussion.

         A. Newly Discovered Evidence.

         At the PCR hearing, Wright's attorney submitted depositions from two witnesses who claimed Duke had told them-sometime after Wright's conviction-that he (Duke) had shot Cooper. Wright maintains Dukes's purported admissions constitute newly discovered evidence that warrants a new trial.[5] In the alternative, he maintains that if the admissions themselves do not warrant a new trial, the admissions would have compelled the court to grant ...

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