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In re Detention of Adams

Court of Appeals of Iowa

March 8, 2017


         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Scott County, Thomas G. Reidel, Judge.

         Respondent appeals his civil commitment as a sexually violent predator. AFFIRMED.

          Jason A. Dunn, Assistant Public Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Kelli A. Huser, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee State.

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

          MCDONALD, Judge.

         Respondent Keith Adams has been convicted of indecent exposure eleven times. Six of his eleven victims were between the ages of nine and thirteen. In 2014, the State initiated civil commitment proceedings pursuant to Iowa Code Chapter 229A (2014). A jury found Adams to be a sexually violent predator (SVP) within the meaning of the code, and the district court issued an order of commitment. Adams raises three challenges to his commitment in this appeal.


         Adams contends the district court should have granted his motion for mistrial made after the State's expert witness, Dr. Anna Salter, purportedly testified regarding the civil-commitment-screening process in violation of In re Detention of Stenzel, 827 N.W.2d 690, 708 (Iowa 2013). "A mistrial is appropriate when an impartial verdict cannot be reached or the verdict would have to be reversed on appeal due to an obvious procedural error in the trial." State v. Newell, 710 N.W.2d 6, 32 (Iowa 2006) (quotations marks and citation omitted). The refusal to grant a mistrial is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. See State v. Gathercole, 877 N.W.2d 421, 427 (Iowa 2016). "An abuse of discretion appears only when it was 'exercised on grounds or for reasons clearly untenable or to an extent clearly unreasonable.'" State v. Anderson, 448 N.W.2d 32, 33 (Iowa 1989) (quoting State v. Ruble, 372 N.W.2d 216, 218 (Iowa 1985)). This court grants the district court "broad discretion in determining whether to grant a mistrial" in "recognition of the trial court's better position to appraise the situation in the context of the full trial." Eldridge v. Casey's Gen. Stores, Inc., 533 N.W.2d 569, 571 (Iowa Ct. App. 1995).

         In Stenzel, the State's expert witness testified in great detail regarding the rigorous commitment screening process. See Stenzel, 827 N.W.2d at 694-95, 704. The expert testified a review committee, a multidisciplinary team, the attorney general's office, and then a psychological expert each reviews the file before a determination is made to seek commitment pursuant to chapter 229A. See id. at 704. The clear import of the expert's testimony was any case that actually went to trial involved an offender determined to be an SVP on multiple occasions by multiple people and the jury should reach the same conclusion. See id. The prosecutor emphasized this point during closing argument. See id. at 705 ("The State's counsel argued to the jury that there is 'a screening process that goes into this and it's pretty sensitive and not many people meet the criteria as a sexually violent predator.' After recapping that screening process, counsel concluded, 'In this case, at every step of the way, Mr. Stenzel has been considered to meet criteria for SVP, but what's really-what's important is what do you think?'"). The Stenzel court concluded the expert's testimony should not have been allowed. See id. at 705-06. The court stated, "[i]ntroducing evidence that a lengthy selection process, including representatives inside and outside the department of corrections, picked out Stenzel to be one of the few candidates for SVP status presents a 'real danger the jury will be unfairly influenced' by a purportedly unbiased 'imprimatur.'" Id. at 707 (citation omitted). The risk of undue prejudice was great because the jury had a natural tendency to look to authority figures to guide them toward a decision and because the State highlighted the expert's testimony. See id. The court held, "the introduction of such unfairly prejudicial information to the jury requires a new trial." Id. at 708. In Stenzel, a limiting instruction was not enough because "the State clearly sought to drive home the point that Stenzel was one of a few sex offenders that the State had selected, " by soliciting the testimony then emphasizing it in its closing argument. Id.

         Here, Adams successfully moved in limine to preclude Dr. Salter from testifying regarding the commitment screening process. Adams contends the State nonetheless elicited testimony regarding the same. On direct examination, the prosecutor asked Dr. Salter whether there "[a]re . . . cases that [Salter has] evaluated and found that a person does not meet Iowa's criteria for civil commitment." Adams objected, contending this question was "close to the edge, " but the court overruled the objection. Salter then answered, "Yes. I actually say no more than I say, " but was then cut off by Adam's renewed objection, which the court sustained. The district court ordered the jury to disregard the statement. The following exchange then occurred:

Q: In the cases that you say no, you don't then testify correct?
A: Right, so I don't then testify. There's ...

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