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Guzman-Perez v. State

Court of Appeals of Iowa

August 16, 2017

LUIS GUZMAN-PEREZ, Applicant-Appellant,
STATE OF IOWA, Respondent-Appellee.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Linn County, Mitchell E. Turner, Judge.

         The applicant appeals the district court decision denying his request for postconviction relief from his conviction for second-degree murder. AFFIRMED.

          Mark C. Meyer, Cedar Rapids, for appellant. Luis Guzman Perez, Anamosa, appellant pro se.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Darrel L. Mullins, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee State.

          Considered by Doyle, P.J., McDonald, J., and Goodhue, S.J. [*]

          GOODHUE, Senior Judge.

         Luis A. Guzman-Perez appeals from the denial of his request for postconviction relief, claiming he received ineffective assistance of counsel during the trial that led to his second-degree-murder conviction. We affirm.

         I. Background Proceedings

         We can hardly do better than to set out in full the trial courts well-written, well-reasoned, and comprehensive findings of fact, conclusions of law and ruling, but in the interest of brevity, we will attempt to set out the pertinent parts of it in an abbreviated fashion. Guzman-Perez was arrested on October 14, 2006, and charged with first-degree murder. The trial began on February 4, 2008, and the jury returned a verdict of guilty of second-degree murder on February 14, 2008. Guzman-Perez's post-trial motions were denied, and Guzman-Perez appealed.

         On appeal, counsel moved to withdraw and dismiss after concluding there were no non-frivolous claims. The supreme court remanded the matter for the trial court to apply the weight-of-the-evidence standard to Guzman-Perez's motion for a new trial. The district court reaffirmed its ruling after applying the weight-of-the-evidence standard. The supreme court then dismissed the appeal as frivolous but preserved any ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims for a postconviction (PCR) proceeding. Guzman-Perez filed this PCR proceeding, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel and asking that the verdict be set aside and the matter remanded for a new trial. The relief requested was denied by the trial court.

         II. Background Facts

         On October 14, 2006, Guzman-Perez and his girlfriend, Caitlin Woodruff, proceeded to a party in Tama County at approximately midnight. In addition to Woodruff, Guzman-Perez's friends, Ignacio Cruz, Salvador Cruz, Alejandro Lopez, Julio Rios, and Daniel Rodriquez-Alviz, accompanied him to the party. Both Guzman-Perez and Salvador Cruz were carrying handguns.

         Apparently, alcoholic beverages were flowing freely at the party. Woodruff got in a fight with another woman; Guzman-Perez and Ignacio Cruz, along with the victim, Josh Wohlman, were involved in separating the women. Guzman-Perez and Woodruff proceeded to leave the party. As they were leaving, a fight developed between the group that came with Guzman-Perez and others at the party. It is unclear whether Guzman-Perez was initially involved in the fight or whether he was trying to break it up. In any event, Guzman-Perez and Salvador Cruz fired their pistols into the air. Woodruff tried to take the gun away from Guzman-Perez but she was unsuccessful and both of them fell to the ground. Guzman-Perez testified that soon thereafter, someone grabbed him around the neck from behind and Wohlman tackled him from the front. Several witnesses testified that Guzman-Perez was yelling at Wohlman.

         Guzman-Perez testified that he hit the ground with Wohlman on top of him and the gun accidently went off, striking Wohlman in the forehead and killing him. Woodruff testified that Guzman-Perez was on his feet and Wohlman was getting up when the gun went off. Other eyewitnesses testified variously that Guzman-Perez was three to six feet away from Wohlman and Wohlman was trying to get up or was standing. Chelsey Wagg, the only witness to claim she had not been drinking, testified that Guzman-Perez and Wohlman were facing each other when Guzman-Perez yelled, "I will shoot you." Other witnesses testified to Guzman-Perez's threat to shoot Wohlman. Rodriguez-Alviz originally told investigators that Guzman-Perez told him he was being choked so he pointed the revolver at Wohlman and "shot it." Rodriguez-Alviz told a different story at the PCR hearing. Witnesses testified that Guzman-Perez threatened to shoot Wohlman, pointed the gun at Wohlman, and fired.

         Based on the stippling caused by unburnt powder surrounding Wohlman's wound, the State's forensic expert, Victor Murillo, testified that the muzzle of the gun could have been no more than one or two inches from the victim. Wohlman had sutures over the wound and Murillo, a forensic expert, testified that what he thought were stipplings could have been from a needlepoint trying to stitch Wohlman up. Murillo further testified that he had examined and tested the revolver Guzman-Perez used and it took from seven-and-a-half to seven-and-three-quarter pounds of pull on the trigger to make it fire. Witnesses on behalf of the State, as well as witnesses called by Guzman-Perez, gave testimony inconsistent with the statements that they had given to law enforcement taken immediately after the shooting and also inconsistent with their prior depositions, where depositions had been taken. There was no question that the bullet killing Wohlman came from Guzman-Perez's gun, but he always maintained the shooting was an accident when the gun discharged after he and the victim fell. When investigators interviewed the witnesses, none of them testified that the shooting had taken place when both men were on the ground. Guzman-Perez immediately left the scene with some of his friends after the shooting incident, and someone threw the gun out of the window of the car on their way home.

         At the time of arrest and booking, Guzman-Perez was wearing a black pea coat, a black/blue-and-white-striped sweatshirt/jersey, a white t-shirt, blue jeans, and green/white tennis shoes. The pea coat, the white t-shirt, blue jeans, and tennis shoes were all examined and taken by the Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) lab for blood examination, but both of the DCI agents involved testified they never saw the striped sweatshirt.

         The DCI agents also testified that they routinely do not take all clothing for testing. If an item has no evidentiary value, it is not taken. The testing of Guzman-Perez's clothing did not reveal any of the victim's blood. The blood found on the clothing was either Guzman-Perez's or belonged to a female. All items were eventually returned to Guzman-Perez's family. Luann Kitheart, the Tama County jailer, testified that the booking sheet listed all items taken from Guzman-Perez, including the sweatshirt, but that all items taken from Guzman-Perez and not tested by the DCI were released to Guzman-Perez and his father, including the striped sweatshirt. Guzman-Perez's father claimed he did not get the striped sweatshirt.

         Guzman-Perez filed a PCR petition, asserting counsel was ineffective in the following respects: (1) failure to obtain the striped sweatshirt and examine it for the victim's DNA or request a spoliation instruction because of its destruction; (2) failure to object to the jury instructions relating to the inference of malice aforethought from the use of a deadly weapon; (3) failure to use an expert witness to testify as to the unreliability of eye witness testimony and as to various other factual issues; (4) failure to effectively cross-examine State's witnesses on the location of the witnesses, the existing light at the scene, and the timeline of the events; (5) failure to investigate lay witnesses present at the scene supporting his claim of accident; and (6) failure to employ a crime scene reconstructionist. He then asserts that these deficiencies when added together warrant a new trial.

         III. ...

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