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State v. Stern

Court of Appeals of Iowa

November 8, 2017

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
ROBERT CHARLES STERN, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Dubuque County, Michael J. Shubatt, Judge.

         The defendant appeals from his conviction for first-degree murder.

          Mark C. Smith, Appellate Defender, and Maria L. Ruhtenberg, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Jean C. Pettinger, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Considered by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Potterfield and McDonald, JJ.

          POTTERFIELD, JUDGE.

         Robert Stern appeals from his conviction for first-degree murder, pursuant to Iowa Code section 707.2(1)(a) (2015). Stern maintains the district court erred when it denied his motion to suppress his confession after finding the waiver of his rights was knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently given. He also argues the court erred when it refused to give the requested jury instruction for voluntary manslaughter.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         On July 9, 2015, police officers responded to a 911 call made by Stern. After arriving at his home, officers found Stern seated in a recliner in the living room and Stern's daughter in a back bedroom; she was recently deceased from gunshot wounds. When asked if he would be willing to go to the police station to be interviewed, Stern agreed to go. Officers helped him stand and locate shoes, and he walked under his own power to the officers' vehicle and got in the backseat. Stern asked if he could lie down during the ride and then proceeded to do so. Officer Kate Avenarius was making small talk with Stern during the drive when she noticed that he had stopped responding and his eyelids were flickering while closed. Officer Kurt Horch, who was driving the vehicle, then took Stern to the hospital rather than to the police department.

         Dr. Anna Lorence and a nurse, Katie Harris, met the police vehicle in the ambulance bay. When asked questions by Dr. Lorence, Stern did not respond verbally, but he was able to follow her commands to step out of the vehicle, stand, pivot, and sit down in a waiting wheelchair. Stern's eyes remained closed, and when Dr. Lorence asked him to open them, he did not do so. She attempted to manually open Stern's eyes, and he squeezed them shut so she could not. She testified that was not a medical response but rather that "it seemed like he didn't want his eyes open." The doctor concluded there was not an immediate emergent threat to Stern's life or health; he was taken into the emergency room and the hospital began running standard tests. Results from a drug test showed Stern had some opiates in his system, which the doctor testified was consistent with the pain medication Stern had been previously prescribed for some chronic health issues.

         While he was in the emergency room, medical personnel asked Stern a number of questions, such as his name and medical history, and he repeatedly responded, "I don't know." When lab technicians came to draw blood, they needed him to confirm his name and birthdate in order to take the blood; Stern stated he did not know a few times before ultimately providing the correct answer. When testifying at the suppression hearing, Nurse Harris noted Stern had reported he did not know his name, but both the officers and medical personnel had been using it with him and in front of him the entire time he was at the hospital, and he had been responding appropriately. Harris testified "there was [no] medical reason for him to behave that way that [she] could observe" and opined Stern may have been faking. She also testified that his vital signs were normal while he was in the emergency room other than his heart rate, which was a little faster than normal.

         While Stern was at the hospital awaiting results on various tests, Officers Avenarius and Horch began speaking with Stern. About forty-five minutes into the interview, Stern stated he "did something very bad." Officer Horch then advised Stern of his Miranda rights;[1] Stern stated he understood his rights and he "didn't have anything to hide." He then told the officers his daughter made him so mad and she "pushed his buttons and he lost it." He also stated that he shot her and then got another gun and maybe a third gun and shot her again. At some point later, when Officer Horch asked Stern questions about how his wife had died, Stern ended the conversation.

         Stern was charged with murder in the first degree. He entered a plea of not guilty and filed a motion to suppress the statements he made to the police officers at the hospital, arguing his waiver of his rights was not knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily given.[2]

         At the hearing on the motion to suppress Officer Avernarius testified she and Officer Horch were with Stern for approximately three or four hours in the hospital talking (after the medical personnel had finished their evaluation of Stern) and Stern answered questions appropriately throughout that time and did not appear to have difficulty understanding the questions. The officers testified Stern was in custody but denied he was ever handcuffed or physically coerced. Officer Horch testified he advised Stern of his Miranda rights and Stern "told me he understood, he wanted to talk to me, he wanted to help us out. He knew what his rights were. He made that clear." Officer Horch also testified that Stern became more coherent the longer they were at the hospital but noted there was one time while ...


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