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State v. Bridges

Court of Appeals of Iowa

December 6, 2017

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Jasper County, Terry R. Rickers, Judge.

         A defendant challenges his conviction for robbery in the first degree, as well as his convictions for two counts of using a juvenile to commit robbery.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Melinda J. Nye, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Timothy M. Hau, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Heard by Vogel, P.J., and Tabor and Bower, JJ.

          TABOR, Judge.

         Police determined that twenty-four-year-old Matthew Bridges enlisted two friends, both under eighteen years of age, to help rob a convenience store. The State charged Bridges with aiding and abetting robbery in the first degree and two counts of using a juvenile to commit robbery. A jury convicted Bridges of all three crimes.

         On appeal, Bridges first seeks dismissal of all three convictions on the basis of insufficient evidence. Because we find substantial evidence to corroborate the accomplice testimony, we affirm on that ground. Alternatively, Bridges seeks a new trial on the first-degree robbery count, alleging his attorney should have objected to jury instructions outlining the elements of conspiracy when the State had not charged Bridges with conspiracy under Iowa Code section 706.1 (2015). Because those jury instructions-combined with a flawed trial information and the prosecutor's closing argument-allowed the jury to consider a form of vicarious liability not charged, we find a breach of duty and resulting prejudice. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for a new trial on the robbery conviction. We reject Bridges's remaining grounds for reversal, and affirm his convictions on the two counts of using a minor to commit robbery.

         I. Facts[1] and Prior Proceedings

         In November 2015, Bridges was forced to leave his father's home in Eldora because a no-contact order prohibited him from interacting with his brother, who also lived there. When Bridges moved out both his girlfriend, T.H., then seventeen years old, and his friend, G.C., then sixteen years old, left with him. The three checked into the AmericInn in Iowa Falls. After a couple nights at that hotel, they ran out of money, and Bridges's father paid for one night's stay at the Super 8.

         After their funds were depleted, Bridges concocted a plan to rob a convenience store and suggested G.C. act as the gunman. According to T.H., Bridges provided G.C. with a ski mask and BB gun. But G.C. expressed concern about getting into a shootout and preferred to have more imposing weaponry before moving forward. So they drove back to Eldora to get "a real gun" from the home of Bridge's father. Bridges sent G.C. into the house, telling him where to find the weapon.

         Bridges next instructed T.H. to drive to State Center where he pointed out the Casey's General Store for G.C. to rob. T.H. recalled that G.C. objected to the location as having too much "open space, " fearing he would be easily caught. So Bridges diverted the operation to Newton, where he had previously lived. In fact, Bridges had rented an apartment behind the Casey's General Store and was familiar with that Newton neighborhood. Bridges assured G.C. the new location would be easier to rob.

         As part of the planning, Bridges walked with his two associates down a neighborhood bike path where he advised G.C. to "ditch" the gun and apparel after the robbery. T.H. testified Bridges assigned her to be the lookout because G.C. "didn't want to go in if there was customers" in the store. Back at the convenience store parking lot, T.H. gave the all-clear signal to Bridges and G.C. once the area was deserted. T.H. and Bridges then walked around the front of the building and across the street to the Newton 66, another convenience store, while G.C. robbed the Casey's.[2]

         After the threesome reunited, Bridges directed them to a friend's apartment where they divided up piles of crumbled bills between Bridges and G.C. They left once word of the robbery spread. According to T.H., Bridges eventually collected the cash and hid it along a gravel road. Later, Bridges and T.H. retrieved the money and spent it on restaurant meals, marijuana, clothing, and various other expenses.

         Police arrested Bridges on November 6, two days after the Casey's robbery. A detective interviewed Bridges after his arrest and suggested several times during the recorded interview that Bridges was lying.[3] The State charged Bridges with robbery in the first degree, a class "B" felony, in violation of Iowa Code sections 711.1(a) and 711.2. The trial information alleged Bridges "either directly committed, or aided and abetted in the commission of, or conspired with or entered into a common scheme or design with one or more others to unlawfully commit a robbery against Casey's General Store." The State also charged Bridges with two counts of using a juvenile to commit certain offenses, class "C" felonies, in violation of Iowa Code section 709A.6.

         Facing her own robbery charge and hoping to work out a plea deal, T.C. testified for the State at the jury trial, describing Bridges as the driving force behind the robbery. Bridges also testified, claiming ignorance of G.C.'s plan to rob the Casey's and attributing the cash haul to his marijuana dealing. The jury convicted Bridges on all three counts.

         The district court sentenced Bridges to concurrent indeterminate ten-year terms on the class "C" felonies and ran those consecutively with the twenty-five-year term for robbery. Bridges now appeals his convictions and sentences.

         II. Scope and Standards of Review

         We employ varied standards of review to address the claims raised by Bridges on appeal. We review for errors at law Bridges's challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence corroborating accomplice testimony and the district court's refusal to submit a requested lesser-included-offense jury instruction. See Herbst v. State, 616 N.W.2d 582, 585 (Iowa 2000); State v. Bugley, 562 N.W.2d 173, 176 (Iowa 1997). We also review sentencing challenges for legal error; sentences within the statutory limits will only be set aside for an abuse of discretion. State v. Thomas, 547 N.W.2d 223, 225 (Iowa 1996).

         We review de novo Bridges's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. See State v. Ondayog, 722 N.W.2d 778, 783 (Iowa 2006). And we look for an abuse of discretion when evaluating his evidentiary challenge to the admissibility of an audio recording of a police interview. See State v. Harrington, 800 N.W.2d 46, 48 (Iowa 2011). Although to the extent the evidence claim is based on the hearsay rules, we review for the correction of errors at law. See State v. Plain, 898 N.W.2d 801, 810 (Iowa 2017).

         III. Analysis

         A. Evidence Corroborating T.H.'s Accomplice Testimony

         Bridges alleges the State offered insufficient evidence to corroborate T.H.'s testimony connecting him to the armed robbery.[4] He contends he was effectively convicted based on her word alone.

         The State must corroborate accomplice testimony "by other evidence which shall tend to connect the defendant with the commission of the offense." See Iowa R. Crim. P. 2.21(3). "[T]he corroboration is not sufficient if it merely shows the commission of the offense or the circumstances thereof." Id. We view corroborating evidence in the light most favorable to the State, including every legitimate inference that may be deduced. See Bugely, 562 N.W.2d at 176. "[T]he corroboration of an accomplice's testimony need not be strong, nor must it confirm every material fact testified to by the accomplice. It need only tend to connect an accused with the commission of a given crime." State v. King, 256 N.W.2d 1, 10 (Iowa 1977). Corroborating evidence may be direct or circumstantial. State v. Brown, 397 N.W.2d 689, 695 (Iowa 1986). But corroborative evidence must do more than "merely raise a suspicion the accused is the guilty party." State v. Gillespie, 503 N.W.2d 612, 617 (Iowa Ct. App. 1993).

         Bridges discounts two potential sources of corroboration-the testimony of his brother, Zakk, concerning the gun taken from their father's house and used in the robbery and security camera footage showing Bridges outside the Casey's moments before the robbery.

         Zakk testified his brother expressed a desire to pick up the gun and later disclosed he had "already grabbed it" and was headed to Newton. Police discovered the gun south of the Casey's following the robbery. According to Bridges, his brother's testimony was inadequate corroboration because Zakk disliked him and was good friends with T.H. But it was for the jury to weigh the witness's motivation for testifying when considering the value of the corroborating evidence. See Bugely, 562 N.W.2d at 176 (noting sufficiency of corroborating evidence is question for the jury not the court).

         Bridges also argues the security footage does not corroborate his participation in the crimes because he does not deny being in the vicinity. But the footage shows more than Bridges's presence outside the Casey's; it reveals conduct that T.H. described as reconnaissance. The jury could see Bridges and T.H. circling the building, T.H. peering around the corner waiting for possible witnesses to leave, and the pair reappearing after the area is clear, followed closely by G.C., who enters Casey's and robs it at gunpoint. The jury was entitled to interpret the footage and decide if Bridges's conduct was consistent with a clueless bystander, as he claims, or an active participant, as T.H. claims.

         Even setting aside the corroboration provided by Zakk and the security footage, the State offered other evidence to bolster T.H.'s testimony. T.H. testified that before the robbery, the threesome walked a nearby bike trail and Bridges told G.C. to "ditch" his clothes along the trail after the robbery. An officer testified to finding sweatpants and a sweatshirt along the trail shortly after the robbery. The State also introduced several photos of the bike trail, strewn with clothing consistent with that worn by G.C. during the robbery.

         The State also presented evidence to corroborate Bridges's financial motive for planning the robbery. T.H. testified Bridges was broke. His father testified he gave Bridges money for a hotel room. T.H. testified, when the threesome met up after the robbery, they went to the apartment of Bridges's friend and divided the proceeds in a bedroom. Bridges's friend testified he walked into his bedroom and saw the three sorting "small dominations of crumpled-up cash" shortly after the Casey's was robbed.

         The State offered sufficient evidence to corroborate T.H.'s testimony from multiple sources-Zakk's testimony, the security footage, and the discarded clothing, as well as the testimony about Bridges's financial motivation. The jurors were free to review the totality of the evidence and determine if it connected Bridges to the crimes independently from T.H.'s testimony. See id. The district court properly denied the motion for judgment of acquittal on all three offenses because the jury's verdicts were supported by substantial evidence.

         B. Counsel's Failure to Object to Conspiracy Instructions

         The State charged Bridges with robbery, either as the principal[5] or an aider and abettor. The trial information-which the prosecutor read to the jury at the start of the trial-included a third alternative: Bridges "conspired with or entered into a common scheme or design with one or more others" to commit the robbery. On appeal, the State admits that passage was "erroneous" because the State did not charge Bridges with conspiracy under section 706.1.[6]

         Against that backdrop, Bridges challenges his trial counsel's failure to object to a series of jury instructions setting out the law of conspiracy.[7] To prove he received ineffective assistance of counsel, Bridges must show (1) trial counsel breached an essential duty when he lent his approval to the proposed jury instructions on conspiracy and (2) Bridges suffered prejudice as a result. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687-88 (1984). Here, the record is adequate to address the claim on direct appeal. See State v. Soboroff, 798 N.W.2d 1, 8 (Iowa 2011).

         1. Breach of Duty

         We turn first to the performance prong. Bridges argues his attorney had a duty to "know the applicable law" and to protect him from a conviction stemming from a mistaken application of the law. He contends counsel was remiss in not objecting to the conspiracy instructions because they had "no relevancy" to his robbery case and would have been "confusing and misleading" to the jurors.

         The State insists counsel had no duty to object to the conspiracy instructions. Citing State v. Tonelli, 749 N.W.2d 689, 691-92 (Iowa 2008), the State argues the court may instruct the jury on concepts of conspiracy even when the State has not charged the defendant under section 706.1. The State also asserts the disputed instructions gave the jury "particularized directives on what ...

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