from the Iowa District Court for Benton County, Ian K.
defendant challenges his convictions and sentence for one
count of voluntary manslaughter and two counts of
C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Robert P. Ranschau,
Assistant State Appellate Defender, for appellant.
J. Miller, Attorney General, and Sheryl A. Soich, Assistant
Attorney General, for appellee.
Considered by Doyle, P.J., and Tabor and McDonald, JJ.
jury heard evidence David Miller killed his live-in
girlfriend and, after leaving the bloody crime scene, totaled
two stolen pickup trucks. Following deliberation, the jury
returned guilty verdicts of voluntary manslaughter and two
counts of second-degree theft. The district court enhanced
the theft offenses based on Miller's habitual-offender
status and sentenced him to consecutive terms totaling forty
years. Miller appeals his convictions and prison sentence,
alleging ineffective assistance of counsel, insufficient
evidence, improper enhancement procedures, and sentencing
defense counsel may have had a strategic reason for not
moving for judgment of acquittal on the homicide count, we
preserve that claim for possible postconviction proceedings.
We find substantial evidence to support the two theft
convictions. As for the habitual-offender enhancement,
vacation of the sentence is required. Because we remand for
further proceedings consistent with the interpretation of
Iowa Rule of Criminal Procedure 2.19(9) in State v.
Harrington, 893 N.W.2d 36 (Iowa 2017), we need not reach
the sentencing issues.
Facts and Prior Proceedings
chilly morning in late October, a passersby noticed a
man-later identified as Miller-walking barefoot along the
shoulder of Lewis Bottoms Road near Palo wearing only his
boxer shorts. Dispatched to the location around 11:30 a.m.,
state troopers detained Miller while they tried to figure out
what was going on. The troopers noticed Miller had
"scratches and blood all over him, " as well as
large gashes on his head and right hand. Miller gave troopers
the implausible explanation that he had been out with friends
"playing a game of war" and had to strip when the
others placed "smoke bombs" around his waist and in
his pockets. Emergency services transported Miller to the
with Miller's detention, dispatch received a report that
neighbors found the body of Sabrina Hustad Janish,
outside the rural Vinton residence she shared with Miller.
Benton County authorities were already investigating two
reports of stolen pickup trucks that morning.
the trucks was taken from the driveway of Justin Varner, who
lived in the same rural neighborhood as Miller. Varner woke
to the "rumble" of his 1977 Chevy Silverado around
3:45 a.m. Varner raced outside but could not stop the
man-whom he did not know at the time, but identified at trial
as Miller-from driving off in the Silverado. Varner recalled
Miller wearing a "hoodie" and staring at him with a
"deer-in-the-headlights look." That look led Varner
to believe Miller was under the influence of methamphetamine.
Varner recalled Miller saying "something along the lines
of his dad told him to either take the truck or told him to
get the truck." Varner notified police who found the
pickup on the "next gravel road over" that had been
closed for construction. The pickup was a total loss after
being "smashed into the front of a large crane."
his Silverado was recovered-the driver's door smeared
with blood- Varner and some neighbors spied a blood trail
from his driveway to the next lot up the street where Miller
lived. The trail ended at the body of a woman, clad in
pajamas, lying face down on the grass outside Miller's
trailer home. One of the neighbors touched her shoulder and
said "she's cold, you better call 911." The
deceased woman was later identified as twenty-six-year-old
Hustad, who moved into the residence with Miller just ten
days earlier. Agents with the Iowa Division of Criminal
Investigation (DCI) told Miller a woman's body had been
discovered outside his trailer. He responded that he
didn't know anything about it or who it
second pickup, a white 2001 Ford F-150, was taken sometime
before 9 a.m. from outside of Brian Brummer's machine
shed. Brummer lived about an eighth of a mile from where the
Silverado smashed into the construction crane. Later that
morning, state troopers flying a plane over the Pleasant
Creek State Recreation Area near Palo spotted Brummer's
F-150 mired in the mud in a heavily wooded area. On the
ground, officers discovered the truck had slid off the road
bed and collided with several trees, ripping off the front
bumper. The driver's side airbag had deployed, and the
interior was covered with "quite a bit of blood."
In the nearby lake bed, officers found a hooded sweatshirt
and two boots, as well as prints left by the barefooted
Criminalist Brenda Crosby examined these mud-caked exhibits.
Crosby detected blood on the sweatshirt but could not develop
a DNA sample because bacteria in the mud inhibited the
process. Crosby found blood stains on the boots that tested
positive for DNA from two individuals, but she could only
develop the profile matching Miller as the major contributor.
The criminalist also performed a Hematrace blood screening
test that revealed Hustad's blood on the lace from the
right boot. In more lab analysis, Crosby tested swabs of
blood taken from the driver's side door of the Silverado,
which matched Miller's DNA profile. Crosby also detected
Miller's DNA in blood droplets retrieved from
Hustad's pajama pants and her bare foot.
found more blood evidence, as well as signs of a struggle,
inside the residence shared by Miller and Hustad. A lamp and
end table were overturned; cigarettes and beer cans were
scattered around the living room. Most significantly, a buck
knife was left in a pool of blood on the carpet. Crosby
confirmed Hustad's blood was on the knife.
autopsy performed on Hustad revealed two-dozen measurable
stab wounds and many more scratches. Hustad had defensive
wounds on her hands, indicating she tried to grab the knife
during the struggle. Associate Medical Examiner Michele
Catellier determined Hustad also had been strangled, based on
bruising and petechial hemorrhages on the vicitm's neck.
Dr. Catellier declared the cause of death as "multiple
stab wounds with strangulation."
State charged Miller with murder in the first degree and two
counts of theft in the second degree while being an habitual
offender. His jury trial took place in September 2016. The
jury returned guilty verdicts on the second-degree theft
counts. But the jury acquitted the defendant of murder,
instead finding him guilty of the lesser-included offense of
voluntary manslaughter. The district court discussed the
habitual offender allegations with Miller, and Miller
stipulated to having at least two qualifying felony
convictions. The court sentenced Miller to consecutive terms
of fifteen years on the two enhanced theft offenses and ten
years on the voluntary manslaughter count, for a total
sentence not to exceed forty years. Miller appeals his
convictions and sentence.
Scope and Standards of Review
of its constitutional basis, we review Miller's claim of
ineffective assistance of counsel de novo. See State v.
Clay, 824 N.W.2d 488, 494 (Iowa 2012). We review his
substantial-evidence challenge for correction of legal error.
See Iowa R. App. P. 6.907; see also State v.
Rohm, 609 N.W.2d 504, 509 (Iowa 2000). As for his
objection to the enhancement proceeding, we again review for
correction of legal error; but if the argument implicates
constitutional rights, we engage in a de novo review. See
Harrington, 893 N.W.2d at 41.