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Schmidt v. State

Court of Appeals of Iowa

June 7, 2017

STATE OF IOWA, Respondent-Appellee.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Linn County, Lars G. Anderson, Judge.

         Applicant appeals the district court's denial of his application for postconviction relief.

          Geneva L. Williams of Williams Law Office, P.L.L.C., Cedar Rapids, for appellant.

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

          Considered by Danilson, C.J., Doyle, J., and Blane, S.J. [*]

          BLANE, Senior Judge.

         Applicant Christopher Robin Schmidt appeals the district court's denial of his seven ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims asserted in his amended application for postconviction relief (PCR) from his 2007 first-degree murder conviction. Based upon our review, we find the district court properly denied the amended application and affirm.

         I. Factual and procedural background.

         Schmidt and the victim, Robert Nelson, were acquaintances. On Thursday, December 28, 2006, Nelson's neighbors heard noises around 10:00 p.m. On December 31, an apartment manager opened Nelson's apartment and found his dead body. Police learned that Schmidt was an acquaintance of Nelson, questioned Schmidt and his girlfriend, and learned that Schmidt had been renting a car from Nelson. Schmidt reported that he last saw Nelson the prior Tuesday or Wednesday.

         Police later called Schmidt in for a recorded interview when they learned his fingerprints were on a barstool used to kill Nelson. Schmidt confirmed he was renting Nelson's car for $100 and that it was in the shop. Schmidt also said that he went to Nelson's apartment to take him groceries and watch TV. Schmidt's story had changed somewhat. He said he saw Nelson on Thursday, not Tuesday or Wednesday. Schmidt said they were alone in the apartment and that he left around 9:30 p.m. Police confronted Schmidt with the fact that he told a different story to his girlfriend. Schmidt then offered another explanation. He said he had gone to Nelson's apartment to get a refund of the money he paid for the car, but he only got $100. He said a man he did not know came to Nelson's apartment and punched Nelson in the nose, causing a bloody Nelson to fall on Schmidt's lap. Schmidt added that the man accused Nelson of cheating on him and the man also struck Nelson on the back of the head with a barstool. Schmidt then left the apartment and disposed of his clothes-pants in a storm drain and his shirt in a cemetery. He admitted the shirt had blood on it. Schmidt denied hitting Nelson and said Nelson was still alive when he left.

         Schmidt's fourth version of events was that he and Nelson had argued over money for the car-money which Schmidt needed to pay rent. According to Schmidt, Nelson shoved him into a wall and Schmidt punched Nelson in the nose. Nelson shoved Schmidt again and Schmidt hit Nelson with a barstool while Nelson was standing. Nelson went to the ground but kept trying to get back up, so Schmidt kept hitting him with barstools. Schmidt left Nelson on the floor, went home and showered with his shirt on, and later disposed of his shirt and pants.

         Nelson sustained fractures to his skull, numerous lacerations to the face, and had four teeth knocked out. He sustained at least three blows, probably four, to the face. Based on the forensic findings, including blood-spatter analysis: three barstools were used and each broke into pieces; the stools were held upright by their legs and the seat struck Nelson; Nelson sustained the first blow on the couch, and then he moved to the floor under a window where he died. There was no evidence of mutual combat.

         Schmidt was charged on January 11, 2007, with first-degree murder for killing Nelson. Schmidt was represented in the criminal proceedings by attorneys Tyler Johnston and Ahmet Gonlubal.[1] A jury found Schmidt guilty of first-degree murder on December 14, 2007.

         Schmidt filed an appeal and we affirmed his conviction in State v. Schmidt, No. 07-2152, 2009 WL 776577 (Iowa Ct. App. Mar. 26, 2009). Schmidt filed his pro se application for PCR on May 21, 2010. An amended and substituted application for PCR was filed on January 16, 2015. The amended application asserted numerous instances of ineffective assistance of trial and appellate counsel. The district court conducted a civil bench trial on Schmidt's amended application on September 16, 2015. On November 16, 2015, the PCR court issued a ruling denying Schmidt's amended application. Schmidt timely filed his notice of appeal on December 9, 2015.

         II. Standard of review.

         Ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims are grounded in the Sixth Amendment and are reviewed de novo. See State v. Clay, 824 N.W.2d 488, 494 (Iowa 2012). To prove ineffective assistance of counsel, Schmidt must show both that counsel breached an essential duty and that as a result of this breach, prejudice occurred. State v. Brothern, 832 N.W.2d 187, 192 (Iowa 2013); see also Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984).

         III. Failing to challenge the State's expert fingerprint evidence.

         Evidence of Schmidt's fingerprints and palm print on the barstools used to kill Nelson in Nelson's apartment was admitted during the trial. Schmidt argues in postconviction relief that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to such evidence being offered. Schmidt contends "[p]rominent experts in the forensic science community have suggested that latent fingerprint identification may not be nearly as reliable as people have long assumed."[2] Schmidt does not cite any state or federal appellate court cases holding fingerprint evidence is not reliable and inadmissible. Schmidt also did not present any evidence at the PCR trial that specifically challenged the validity of the fingerprint evidence submitted at his criminal trial.

         Fingerprint evidence is admissible in Iowa courts and was admissible at the time of Schmidt's trial in 2007. See State v. Sellers, 215 N.W.2d 231, 232 (Iowa 1974); State v. Moore, No. 14-0557, 2015 WL 1817028, at *4 (Iowa Ct. App. Apr. 22, 2015) (finding counsel was not ineffective for declining to object to fingerprint evidence). Expert testimony about fingerprint evidence falls under Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.702, which states:

If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.

         Iowa courts follow a liberal view to admit expert testimony. Leaf v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 590 N.W.2d 525, 531 (Iowa 1999). Iowa courts have not adopted the Daubert standard for expert testimony. Id. at 532. The only requirements for admission are as follows: (1) the evidence must be relevant, (2) the testimony must be in the form of "scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge [that] will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, " and (3) the expert must be "qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education." Id. at 533. Even in jurisdictions that utilize the stricter Daubert standard, fingerprint evidence is often admitted. United States v. John, 597 F.3d 263, 274 (5th Cir. 2010) ("We agree that in most cases, absent novel challenges, fingerprint evidence is sufficiently reliable to satisfy Rule 702 and Daubert."); see also United States v. Pena, 586 F.3d 105, 110-11 (1st Cir. 2009); United States v. Baines, 573 F.3d 979, 992 (10th Cir. 2009); United States v. Abreu, 406 F.3d 1304, 1307 (11th Cir. 2005); United States v. Mitchell, 365 F.3d 215, 246 (3d Cir. 2004); United States v. George, 363 F.3d 666, 672-73 (7th Cir. 2004); United States v. Collins, 340 F.3d 672, 682-83 (8th Cir. 2003); United States v. Sherwood, 98 F.3d 402, 408 (9th Cir. 1996).

         Numerous state appellate courts in recent years have also held that fingerprint evidence is adequately reliable to be admitted in their trial courts. State v. Favela, 323 P.3d 716, 718 (Ariz.Ct.App. 2014); People v. Rivas, 190 Cal.Rptr.3d 43, 53 (Cal.Ct.App. 2015); People v. Wilson, 318 P.3d 538, 546 (Colo.App. 2013); People v. Mitchell,955 N.E.2d 1180, 1185-87 (Ill.App.Ct. 2011); State v. Hightower, 511 S.W.3d 454, 460 (Mo.Ct.App. 2017); State v. Ferrara, 42 N.E.3d 224, 230 (Ohio Ct. App. 2015); State v. Woodard, 330 P.3d 1283, 1287-88 (Utah Ct. App. 2014); State v. Washington, No. 73162-9-1, 2016 WL 3190528, at *2 (Wash.Ct.App. June 6, 2016) ("'[T]he reliability of fingerprint identification has been tested in our adversarial system for over a ...

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