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State v. Green

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 9, 2017

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee,

         On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Sac County, Gary L. McMinimee, Judge.

         John David Green seeks further review of a court of appeals decision affirming his conviction of murder in the second degree.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, Joseph A. Fraioli (until withdrawal) and Melinda J. Nye, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Bridget A. Chambers and Douglas D. Hammerand, Assistant Attorneys General, for appellee.

          CADY, Chief Justice.

         In this case, we consider the right to counsel under article I, section 10 of the Iowa Constitution. We also consider the court's use of a malice-inference jury instruction. The district court held John David Green did not have a right to counsel under the Iowa Constitution when he voluntarily participated in a noncustodial police interview under the supervision of an Iowa county attorney, even though the State's homicide investigation had by then focused on Green as the primary suspect. The district court also instructed the jury that it could infer Green acted with malice aforethought from his use of a baseball bat, despite Green's objection that he did not bring the bat to the fatal encounter. The court of appeals affirmed the district court on both the claimed errors, finding article I, section 10 could not apply to the preaccusation stage of a criminal investigation, and the jury could infer malice aforethought from the intentional use of a deadly weapon. We conclude the level of prosecutorial involvement at the time of the interview did not create a prosecution or case that would trigger the right to counsel under article I, section 10. We further conclude the jury could properly infer malice aforethought from Green's use of a deadly weapon. Therefore, we affirm the decision of the court of appeals.

         I. Factual Background and Proceedings.

         Mark Koster lived in a one-bedroom house in Sac City. In 2009, he seemingly disappeared from the area without notice. Police were alerted after mail began to accumulate in the mailbox at his house and he stopped paying his utility bills. Police found a handwritten note attached to the back door of Koster's house. The note indicated he had gone to Florida for the winter and would return in the spring. A phone number on the note was the number of a Florida resort, but the resort had no record of Koster. As a result, police entered and searched the home. Nothing looked suspicious, except Koster's clothes and personal belongings had not been removed from the home.

         After Koster failed to return to his house in the spring, police continued to investigate his disappearance. They learned from neighbors and others that a man had been staying with Koster. The man was described as tall. The investigation, however, led no further. Two years passed with no answers or information. Koster was subsequently presumed dead, and his house was sold.

         The new owner of the home discovered a decomposed body buried under a pile of debris in the basement. The state medical examiner identified the body as Koster. A renewed law enforcement investigation eventually located the man who had stayed with Koster prior to his disappearance. His name was John David Green, and police located him in a camper near Jacksonville, Florida.

         The Sac County attorney, two police officers, and an agent from the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation traveled to Florida. They approached Green at his camper. Green agreed to accompany them to a nearby police station for an interview. Green was told he was not under arrest and was free to leave. He was not informed of his Miranda rights prior to or at any time during the interview or told of a right to counsel.

         The interview was conducted in an unlocked room of the police station. Green sat on a couch, and law enforcement officers sat on chairs. The county attorney was not in the interview room, but watched from another room in the station. Multiple times throughout the interview, one of the officers would leave the interview room to consult with the county attorney. During these consultations, the county attorney would direct the officers to ask specific questions. The interview was recorded.

         Green eventually confessed to killing Koster after the two men had an altercation in Koster's Sac City home one evening in 2009. Green said Koster became upset with him and started a fight by striking him with a baseball bat. During the fight, the two fell onto a table and then the ground, struggling over the bat. Green, much larger in size than Koster, gained control and pressed the bat against Koster's throat until he could no longer breathe. Green held it there until Koster died.

         Green then wrapped Koster's body in blankets and placed it in the basement of the home. He covered the body with cat litter and piled a variety of items over it, including an old, heavy water heater. He propped up the broken table next to the pile of debris. Green then cleaned the house, attached the note to the back door, and left town.

         Law enforcement officers initially returned Green to his camper after this confession, but arrested him after the county attorney obtained an arrest warrant. He was returned to Iowa and charged with first-degree murder. See Iowa Code §§ 707.1, .2 (2009).

         Prior to trial, Green moved to suppress the interview with police in Florida. Pertinent to this appeal, he claimed the State obtained his confession in violation of his right to counsel. Green asserted that his right to counsel had attached at the time of the interview because the case had effectively transformed from an investigation into a prosecution based on the active role of the county attorney during the interview. The district court overruled the motion.

         At trial, the State introduced the entire interview as evidence. The State also used portions of the interview during cross-examination of Green and in closing arguments.

         The medical examiner testified that an autopsy of Koster's body showed the cause of death was consistent with Green's version of the events. The medical examiner also testified it would have taken approximately two minutes to asphyxiate a person by applying pressure to the neck with a straight object. Green testified he acted in self-defense.

         The district court instructed the jury, over Green's objection, that if a person had an opportunity to deliberate and used a dangerous weapon against another resulting in death, the jury may infer "the weapon was used with malice, malice aforethought, premeditation, and specific intent to kill." The district court also instructed the jury that a dangerous weapon was an instrument actually used in a way to indicate "the user intended to inflict death or serious injury, and when so used is capable of inflicting death."

         The jury found Green guilty of murder in the second degree. In doing so, the jury found Green suffocated Koster without justification and with malice aforethought. The district court sentenced Green to an indeterminate sentence of fifty years with a mandatory minimum term of incarceration of thirty-five years.

         Green appealed and raised two claims of error. First, he claimed his confession was obtained in violation of his right to counsel under the Iowa Constitution. Second, he claimed that the jury instruction on the inference of malice and the definition of a dangerous weapon were improper since there was no evidence introduced at trial that Green initiated the physical altercation or that Green took the bat to the altercation.

         We transferred the case to the court of appeals. The court of appeals affirmed the judgment and ...

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