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Ruthers v. State

Court of Appeals of Iowa

February 7, 2018

THOMAS G. RUTHERS JR., Applicant-Appellant,
v.
STATE OF IOWA, Respondent-Appellee.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Mahaska County, Myron L. Gookin, Judge.

         Thomas Ruthers Jr. appeals his conviction for assault causing bodily injury. AFFIRMED.

          R.E. Breckenridge of Breckenridge Law P.C., Ottumwa, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Tyler J. Buller, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee State.

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

          BOWER, Judge.

         Thomas Ruthers Jr. appeals his conviction for assault causing bodily injury. We find neither trial nor appellate counsel were ineffective. We also find Ruthers cannot challenge whether the plea was proper at this stage in the proceedings. Finally, we find the postconviction court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to take additional evidence after the record was closed. We affirm.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings

         Thomas Ruthers Jr. has a long history of molesting children. In 2007 he was accused of molesting R.S., an eight year old, in Mahaska County. Ruthers was charged with sexual abuse in the second degree in violation of Iowa Code sections 709.01 and 709.3(2) (2006). The charged was enhanced due to a prior conviction of sexual abuse in the first degree in West Virginia. The minutes of evidence showed R.S. would testify that prior to the molestation, Ruthers "threw him on the bed" and R.S. "hit his head on the board and had a bump."

         Ruthers's primary defense attorney, Kenneth Duker, sought advice from the state public defender on how to structure a plea bargain to avoid Ruthers's commitment as a sexually violent predator. Duker was informed that even a nonsexual offense was grounds for commitment if the offense was sexually motivated.

         The State offered Ruthers a plea to assault with intent to commit sexual abuse. Ruthers stated he would not plead to any offense that was sexual in nature. The State eventually offered a plea to assault causing bodily injury, which the State understood to be factually supported by Ruthers throwing R.S. onto the bed. Ruthers agreed, and on March 19 filed a written guilty plea. On the written plea, Ruthers and his counsel purposefully replaced R.S.'s full name with B.S.'s, the child's mother. The factual basis for the guilty plea was stated as: "I did assault [B.S] and in doing so caused a bodily injury." Ruthers also handwrote: "sex abuse 2nd degree to be dismissed with prejudice." Neither the State nor the district court read the written plea closely enough to notice the substitution. Ruthers's guilty plea was accepted, and he was sentenced to one year in jail with credit for time served.

         Earlier in the day, the State served Ruthers with a petition seeking to confine him as a sexually violent predator, pursuant to Iowa Code section 229A. While pursuing the 229A action, the State discovered the substitution of names and filed a motion to set aside the written guilty plea, judgment, and sentence on March 22. The State asked the matter be re-set for trial, and Ruthers resisted. A hearing was held before the district court on March 26. The district court denied the State's motion to set aside the guilty plea and instead informed the parties it would change the factual basis to the plea. The written plea stipulated that the district court need not rely on the defendant's factual basis but could rely on the minutes of evidence instead.[1]

         Ruthers filed a notice of appeal on April 18 and was assigned Dennis Hendrickson from the state appellate defender's office. Ruthers asked Hendrickson to raise several specific issues, but Hendrickson refused. Ruthers was informed he could write a pro se brief raising those issues himself, but he declined. Hendrickson then informed Ruthers that the outcome of a successful appeal would be returning to the trial stage of proceedings where he would potentially be facing life in prison. Ruthers voluntarily and in writing withdrew his appeal on April 19, 2013.

         On November 10, 2014, Ruthers filed an application for postconviction relief. Trial was held August 12, 2015, and Ruthers represented himself. Ruthers subpoenaed his trial counsel, Duker, but he was released by Ruthers shortly before trial commenced. The district court summarized the basis for Ruthers's claims as, "[H]e pled guilty to a different crime than the crime on which judgment was entered." Ruthers alleged ineffective assistance of trial and appellate counsel and "numerous claims ...


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