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State v. Lenz

Court of Appeals of Iowa

December 20, 2017

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
NICHOLAS ANDREW LENZ, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Mitchell County, Christopher C. Foy, Judge.

         Nicholas Lenz appeals his conviction of first-degree kidnapping.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Theresa R. Wilson, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Nicholas A. Lenz, Fort Madison, pro se.

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

          Considered by Danilson, C.J., and Doyle and Mullins, JJ.

          MULLINS, JUDGE

         Nicholas Lenz appeals his conviction of first-degree kidnapping. His various arguments on appeal include: (1) the district court improperly disallowed questioning of the victim about her drug use at or around the time of the crime or, alternatively, his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to argue such evidence was admissible under the inexplicably-intertwined doctrine; (2) the court erred in allowing irrelevant and prejudicial information regarding whether a sheriff's deputy thought Lenz could have shot him at the time of his arrest; (3) the statute defining serious injury, Iowa Code section 702.18 (2016), is unconstitutionally vague; (4) the evidence was insufficient to support a necessary element of the crime, that the victim suffered a serious injury or, alternatively, that any serious injury was not a result of confinement; (5) the court erred in failing to give certain jury instructions; and (6) the jury's general verdict makes it unclear whether he was convicted on a valid or invalid basis thus warranting a new trial. Lenz also argues his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to raise arguments three and six at trial.[1]

         I. Background Facts & Proceedings

         Lenz was in a romantic relationship with Chris Sonberg in the early months of 2016; the two were dating at the time but the relationship was "not good." On the afternoon of March 5 of that year, Lenz and Sonberg travelled from Mitchell, Iowa to Waterloo to visit a casino. They spent "two hours or longer" at the casino. After their departure from the casino, an argument ensued between the two in the vehicle Lenz was driving back to Mitchell. Lenz began yelling at Sonberg and eventually struck her with his fists several times in her face, which caused her to lose consciousness-she was in-and-out of consciousness for the remainder of their journey. When they arrived at Sonberg's home in Mitchell, Lenz put a cigarette out on her right cheek and then dragged her by her hair from the car into the house while covering her mouth so she could not scream.

         For the next couple of days, they remained in Sonberg's home, wherein Chris was "beaten a lot" by Lenz. He hit her numerous times in her head and face and strangled her to a point that she testified she thought she was going to die. Lenz also threatened Sonberg with the display of a firearm on multiple occasions, hit her "upside the head" with it, and pressed its muzzle against her flesh. At one point, when Sonberg tried to escape, Lenz chased her outside, slammed her to the ground, kicked her in her ribs and head, and dragged her by her hair back into the residence. Lenz eventually transported Sonberg to an abandoned camper where he zip tied her ankles to a pipe under the stove and then left her there for approximately four hours, during which Sonberg was without food, water, and heat and experienced a loss of feeling in her feet as a result of the tightness of the zip ties. Lenz subsequently transported Sonberg back to her home, where he continued to confine her.

         In the early morning hours of March 7, Sonberg's father visited her home and noticed one of the home's windows was open. He notified law enforcement of a possible break-in at the residence, and a Mitchell County Sheriff's Deputy responded shortly thereafter. When the deputy entered the residence with Sonberg's father, he observed Lenz sleeping on a couch in the living room. The deputy approached Lenz and handcuffed him. Sonberg was located in the bedroom of the residence. The deputy observed that she had facial injuries and Sonberg advised Lenz "beat her up." The deputy removed Lenz from the home and secured him in his police vehicle. Lenz managed to escape the vehicle, however, and fled the scene. Following a foot chase, Lenz stole a car to aid him in his escape, but he was recaptured by authorities. Sonberg was transported to a nearby hospital in an ambulance. She was then life-flighted to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota for treatment.

         On March 8, Lenz was interviewed by police officers.[2] At the outset of the interview, Lenz requested the officers to tell Sonberg he was sorry for what he did; he repeated his sorrow for his actions a number of times throughout the interview. He stated Sonberg wanted to go to Waterloo for drugs, and when they got there, they smoked about $200 worth of crack. On their way back to Mitchell from Waterloo, Lenz said he became upset with Sonberg and he "couldn't take it anymore." An argument ensued, during which Sonberg rolled down her window in an attempt to "wave somebody down, " presumably for a ride. Lenz stated he grabbed her by the ponytail, "threw her down, " and rolled up and locked the windows. He indicated he subdued her for the remainder of the journey back to Mitchell. At one point, Lenz said Sonberg "was really starting to piss [Lenz] off, so" he punched her "like ten times in her back." Upon their arrival in Mitchell, Lenz admitted he dragged Sonberg into the house, after which he "beat the fuck out of her for like two days straight." Lenz thought the beatings "might have broke[n] some of her ribs and might have broke[n] her jaw too." Lenz said he eventually decided to transport Sonberg to a camper near his grandparents' home. Lenz stated, in transit, he "just snapped" and "repetitively . . . hit [Sonberg] on her left side of her jaw" and "also in her ribs too." While in the camper, Lenz admitted he zip tied Sonberg's legs to a pipe so she would not "do anything stupid." Lenz and Sonberg left the camper, and Lenz went on a bit of a crime spree. He subsequently transported Sonberg back to her residence and remained there with her. Lenz also admitted that he, at one point, taped Sonberg to a chair in her home. Also, when searching Sonberg's purse, Lenz found a condom; he removed it from the wrapper and shoved it down Sonberg's throat.

         Sonberg testified, throughout this ordeal, she thought she was going to die. As a result of the frequent beatings, she suffered severe bruising to her body lasting one or two weeks and, according to her, a severe concussion. She spent three days at Mayo, during which she underwent surgery. One of her doctors testified she suffered fractures to her jaw, maxillary sinus bone, and hyoid bone and exhibited multiple lacerations inside of her mouth. Fracturing of the hyoid bone is commonly caused by strangulation while the remainder of the injuries can be explained by blunt force trauma to the head or face. To correct her broken jaw, Sonberg underwent an open reduction internal fixation procedure. This procedure involves the internal fixation of the jawbone with titanium plates. Doctors also performed a maxillomandibular fixation, which required the placement of "at least six screws in the jaw." As a result of her broken jaw, Sonberg experiences difficulty with speaking and eating, and her jaw "pops" on occasion. Her jaw line is also misaligned, which has caused chipping of her back teeth.

         Lenz was charged by trial information with a number of crimes in relation to the foregoing, including first-degree kidnapping and willful injury causing serious injury. A jury found him guilty on both counts. The district court denied Lenz's subsequent motions for a new trial and in arrest of judgment and sentenced Lenz to life in prison without the possibility of parole on the kidnapping charge.[3] Lenz appeals. Additional facts may be set forth below as are relevant to the issues raised on appeal.

         II. Evidentiary Rulings

         Lenz challenges the district court's evidentiary rulings in two respects. He contends (1) the district court improperly disallowed questioning of the alleged victim about her drug use at or around the time of the crime and (2) the court erred in allowing irrelevant and prejudicial information regarding whether a sheriff's deputy thought Lenz could have shot him at the time of his arrest. We review the district court's evidentiary rulings for an abuse of discretion. State v. Tipton, 897 N.W.2d 653, 690 (Iowa 2017). "An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court exercises its discretion 'on grounds or for reasons clearly untenable or to an extent clearly unreasonable.'" Id. ...


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