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State v. Ramirez-Ruiz

Court of Appeals of Iowa

February 7, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Black Hawk County, Andrea J. Dryer, Judge.

         A defendant challenges his convictions for sexual abuse in the third degree and enticing a minor.

          Matthew C. Moore of The Law Offices of Matthew C. Moore, PLLC, Chariton, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Linda J. Hines, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

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

          TABOR, JUDGE.

         A jury convicted Orlando Ramirez-Ruiz of sexual abuse in the third degree and enticing a minor after hearing evidence that-at age twenty-five-he picked up a thirteen-year-old girl from her middle school, took her to the Motel 6, undressed, and committed a sex act with her. On appeal, Ramirez-Ruiz challenges the sufficiency and weight of the evidence, the admission of hearsay evidence, and his trial counsel's performance.

         Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, we find ample evidence to affirm the verdicts. In addition, we see no abuse of discretion in the district court's determination the greater weight of credible evidence supported the verdicts. We also believe the district court properly allowed a nurse practitioner to testify to a statement made by the girl during the course of a sexual-assault examination. Finally, we conclude Ramirez-Ruiz fails to show he was prejudiced by his attorney's decision not to object to an exhibit of translated text messages.

         I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

         When she was in seventh grade, A.M. started communicating with Ramirez-Ruiz through Facebook. They developed a friendly on-line relationship but did not meet in person that year. Then in September of her eighth-grade year, Ramirez-Ruiz picked A.M. up at school-telling the office secretary he had permission to take her to a medical appointment.[1] Ramirez-Ruiz instead took her for breakfast at Casey's General Store, drove around for an hour, and ended up at the Motel 6 in Waterloo. Ramirez-Ruiz checked in, telling the clerk he only needed the room for a couple of hours. Once inside the motel room, A.M.-who had a "crush" on Ramirez-Ruiz-took off her school uniform. A.M. testified Ramirez-Ruiz's boxers were pulled down. She also reluctantly testified that "the tip of his penis touched [her] vagina." After they left the motel, Ramirez-Ruiz took A.M. to lunch at Subway, stopped by a park, and returned her to school in time to catch the bus home.

         The next day, A.M.'s parents learned of her absence from school and her encounter with Ramirez-Ruiz. Posing as A.M., they sent text messages to him. Ramirez-Ruiz sent back messages telling A.M.: "Never say anything about what we did. . . . You know, in the hotel." A.M.'s parents contacted police. Officers interviewed Ramirez-Ruiz, who admitted spending the day with A.M., but denied having sex with the middle schooler. From a holding room at the police station, Ramirez-Ruiz called A.M.'s mother, pleading with her to not press charges, offering to pay the family, and proposing that he marry A.M.

         As part of the investigation, A.M. met with a nurse practitioner at the Allen Hospital's Child Protection Center. A.M. acknowledged telling the nurse practitioner that when Ramirez-Ruiz put his penis into her vagina it "hurt." A.M. also had a sexual-assault examination. A.M. testified that the nurse who performed the physical exam "knew I had sex with someone." During the colposcopic exam, the nurse observed two areas of redness on A.M.'s hymen, as well as petechia caused by bleeding beneath the skin. The nurse testified the redness and petechia "could be due to trauma." The nurse told the jury "given the history of what she had told me had occurred, given the basis of what was found on examination, it could have been from sexual assault." Because the redness was gone by the time of A.M.'s follow-up visit, the nurse concluded it was the result of "some type of blunt-force trauma."

         Officers collected the underpants A.M. had been wearing at the motel. A state criminalist detected seminal fluid on the underpants; tests of the sperm fraction indicated the presence of DNA from at least two individuals. According to the criminalist, one contributor to the DNA mixture was A.M. and the second profile was consistent with the DNA of Ramirez-Ruiz.

         The State charged Ramirez-Ruiz with sexual abuse in the third degree, a class "C" felony, in violation of Iowa Code section 709.4(2)(b) (2014), and enticing a minor, a class "D" felony, in violation of Iowa Code section 710.10. After a three-day trial, the jury convicted Ramirez-Ruiz on both counts. The district court sentenced him to concurrent terms not to exceed of ten years and five years. Ramirez-Ruiz now appeals.

         II. Scope and Standards of Review

         The various claims raised on appeal call for different reviewing standards. When considering the district court's ruling on Ramirez-Ruiz's motion for judgment of acquittal and hearsay objection, we review for correction of legal error. See State v. Smith, 876 N.W.2d 180');">876 N.W.2d 180, 184 (Iowa 2016) (explaining whether a particular statement constitutes hearsay presents a legal issue, leaving the district court without discretion whether to admit or deny its admission); State v. Bash, 670 N.W.2d 135, 137 (Iowa 2003) (upholding jury's verdict if it is supported by substantial evidence). We employ an abuse-of-discretion standard when considering the district court's ruling on the motion for new trial based on the weight of the evidence. See State v. Neiderbach, 837 N.W.2d 180, 190 (Iowa 2013). We review de novo the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. State v. McNeal, 897 N.W.2d 697, 703 (Iowa 2017).

         III. Analysis of Appellate Claims

         A. Sufficiency and Weight of the Evidence

         Ramirez-Ruiz challenges both the sufficiency and the weight of the State's evidence for both his crimes. On the sufficiency question, [2] we assess the record in the light most favorable to the State, including all reasonable inferences that we may fairly draw from the evidence. State v. Howse, 875 N.W.2d 684, 688 (Iowa 2016). We will uphold the jury's verdicts if they are supported by substantial evidence. Id. Evidence is substantial when a reasonable jury could rely on it to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. Evidence is not substantial if it raises only suspicion, speculation, or conjecture. Id.

         On the alternative claim challenging the weight of the evidence, we must grant a new trial if the jury's verdicts are contrary to law or evidence. Iowa R. Crim. P. 2.24(2)(b)(6). A verdict is contrary to evidence when it is against the greater weight of the evidence presented at trial. State v. Taylor, 689 N.W.2d 116, 133-34 (Iowa 2004). Unlike the sufficiency standard, where the district court must approach the evidence from a standpoint most favorable to the State and assume the truth of the prosecution's case, the weight-of-the-evidence standard allows the court to balance the evidence and consider the credibility of witnesses. Id. at 134. In deciding whether to grant a new trial ...

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