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Wright v. State

Court of Appeals of Iowa

April 19, 2017

JAMES E. WRIGHT, JR., Applicant-Appellee,
v.
STATE OF IOWA, Respondent-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Karen A. Romano, Judge.

         The State appeals from a district court order granting a defendant postconviction relief. REVERSED AND REMANDED.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Benjamin Parrott, Assistant Attorney General, for appellant State.

          Gary Dickey and Angela Campbell of Dickey & Campbell Law Firm, P.L.C., Des Moines, for appellee.

          Heard by Vogel, P.J., and Doyle and McDonald, JJ.

          MCDONALD, Judge.

         In State v. Heemstra, 721 N.W.2d 549, 558 (Iowa 2006), the supreme court held willful injury cannot serve as the predicate felony for felony murder "if the act causing willful injury is the same act that causes the victim's death." The court limited application of this new rule "only to the present case and those cases not finally resolved on direct appeal in which the issue has been raised in the district court." Heemstra, 721 N.W.2d at 558.

         The primary question presented in this postconviction-relief appeal is whether the supreme court's limitation of the application of Heemstra to only non-final cases in which the issue had been raised in the district court violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the Iowa Constitution. The postconviction court held it did:

If the specific facts of a criminal case on direct appeal require application of a new substantive rule, it should be applied. There is little perceptible difference between defendants who needlessly raised the merger issue at trial before Heemstra, and those who focused their arguments on issues supported by the law at the time. Application of the new merger rule to all cases pending on appeal, whether the issue was raised in the district court or not, is required to provide equal treatment to all similarly situated defendants with appeals which are not final and to comport with the requirements of due process.

         The postconviction court vacated Wright's conviction for murder in the first degree and ordered new trial. The State timely filed this appeal.

         I.

         On May 4, 2000, James Wright was involved in the shooting death of Ollie Talton. Wright was charged with first-degree murder, in violation of Iowa Code section 707.2 (1999). The district court instructed the jury on premeditated murder and felony murder with willful injury serving as the predicate felony. The jury returned a general guilty verdict. Wright did not object to the jury instruction or verdict form or otherwise raise the Heemstra issue.

         Wright appealed his conviction. While the appeal was pending, the supreme court decided Heemstra. Wright's appellate counsel filed a motion to amend his brief to address the Heemstra decision. This court ordered supplemental briefing on the issue. Meanwhile, the State filed a petition for rehearing in Heemstra, asking the supreme court to address whether its merger rule would apply retrospectively or prospectively. The supreme court amended its decision, writing: "The rule of law announced in this case regarding the use of willful injury as a predicate felony for felony-murder purposes shall be applicable only to the present case and those cases not finally resolved on direct appeal in which the issue has been raised in the district court." Heemstra, 721 N.W.2d at 558 (emphasis added). We affirmed Wright's conviction shortly thereafter. State v. Wright, No. 05-0679, 2006 WL 3018149, at *4 (Iowa Ct. App. Oct. 25, 2006).

         Wright filed an application for postconviction relief in 2008. Among other claims, Wright asserted his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the felony-murder instruction. While Wright's application for postconviction relief was pending, the supreme court decided Goosman v. State, 764 N.W.2d 539, 545 (Iowa 2009). In that case, the court held Heemstra was a change in the law and trial counsel could not be deemed ineffective for failing to anticipate the change in law in Heemstra. See Goosman, 764 N.W.2d ...


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