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State v. Miller

Court of Appeals of Iowa

February 21, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
DAVID CHARLES MILLER, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Benton County, Ian K. Thornhill, Judge.

         A defendant challenges his convictions and sentence for one count of voluntary manslaughter and two counts of second-degree theft.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Robert P. Ranschau, Assistant State Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Sheryl A. Soich, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Considered by Doyle, P.J., and Tabor and McDonald, JJ.

          TABOR, Judge.

         The 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 errors.

         Because 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.[1]

         I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

         On a 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 hospital.

         Contemporaneous with Miller's detention, dispatch received a report that neighbors found the body of Sabrina Hustad Janish, [2] outside the rural Vinton residence she shared with Miller. Benton County authorities were already investigating two reports of stolen pickup trucks that morning.

         One of 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."

         After 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 was.[3]

         The 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 Miller.

         State 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.

         Investigators 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.[4]

         An 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."

         The 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.

         II. Scope and Standards of Review

         Because 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.

         III. ...

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