from the Iowa District Court for Lee (North) County, Mark E.
defendant challenges his convictions for assault with intent
to commit serious injury, first-degree arson, and possession
of incendiary materials.
C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Mary K. Conroy,
Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.
J. Miller, Attorney General, and Timothy M. Hau, Assistant
Attorney General, for appellee.
Considered by Doyle, P.J., and Tabor and McDonald, JJ.
Timothy Brownlee told his girlfriend that his
"boss" expected him to "pay a heating bill,
" she took it to mean he was "supposed to light a
fire" at the house occupied by the boss's nemesis.
After hearing evidence Brownlee acted on that expectation, a
jury convicted him of first-degree arson, possession of
incendiary material, and assault with intent to commit
serious injury. On appeal, Brownlee focuses on his
girlfriend's accomplice testimony and contends trial
counsel missed key opportunities to challenge the lack of
corroboration. He also contends the jury should not have been
allowed to hear about his prior bad acts through his recorded
interview with police.
Brownlee's confession to being at the fire scene amply
corroborated his girlfriend's testimony, he cannot show
he was prejudiced by counsel's performance. As for the
prior-bad-acts evidence, we find no abuse of discretion in
the district court's ruling.
Facts and Prior Proceedings
5 a.m. on February 7, 2016, a newspaper carrier noticed a
"bright glow" between two houses on his route. He
called 911 to report a fire burning in a wheel barrow and
going up the side of the house occupied by Amber Rae. Rae
woke up to rescuers banging on her door and smoke filling her
house. Rae's neighbor, Dan Miller, tried to fight the
blaze with his garden hose-with limited success. Flames
bounced around when sprayed with water, leading Miller to
believe the fire was oil-based. The fire department used foam
to fully extinguish the fire. The shift captain testified
Miller's experience indicated the presence of an
accelerant. Another fire investigator testified the
fire's yellow color was consistent with the use of an
accelerant. The fire damaged the siding on both houses, but
no one was hurt.
charges were filed in connection with the fire until Tanisha
Brownleecame forward about seven weeks later. She
asked the county attorney for immunity in exchange for her
testimony regarding the source of the fire. Tanisha shared
information that her boyfriend, Brownlee, performed
"jobs" for a woman named Jeannie Breashears.
Tanisha testified she accompanied Brownlee to rural Lee
County where he received directions from Breashears to
"pay a heating bill" at Rae's house. Tanisha
understood the euphemism to mean set a fire. Tanisha
testified Breashears previously told Brownlee that Rae was
"messing with the wrong person." Rae testified she
knew Breashears was "not a fan" of hers because Rae
had a romantic relationship with Breashears's boyfriend.
took a trip with Brownlee to Rae's house in January 2016.
According to Tanisha, Brownlee carried "tennis balls
with match heads in them" and paracord on the first trip
to the house. Once there, Brownlee "put lighter fluid on
the window sill and tried to light it. It lit for maybe a
second and went out. It was too cold to keep a fire." In
February 2016, Brownlee told Tanisha he was heading back to
Rae's house to "finish paying the heating
bill." On his second trip, Brownlee took a glass jar
with a "goopy" pink substance "he indicated
was napalm." He also carried lighter fluid and tennis
balls that were sliced to accommodate matchsticks, according
to Tanisha's recollection. After the February fire,
Tanisha did not see Brownlee "for at least a day or
Tanisha gave her statement to authorities, Fort Madison
Police Officer David Doyle interviewed Brownlee. Brownlee
initially denied knowing Rae and said he had never been to
her house. But as the interview progressed,  Brownlee admitted
Breashears wanted him to go to Rae's house and
"harass her." Brownlee told the officer he knew
Breashears "unfortunately better than I'd like
to" and had known her since she was a teenager. The
officer introduced the idea that Breashears was "selling
dope" and Brownlee acknowledged he owed her $300. He
recalled driving out to rural Montrose to meet with
Breashears because she was looking for somebody to
"evict" Rae. Brownlee confessed to going to
Rae's house on two separate occasions about two weeks
apart. Brownlee denied setting fire to Rae's house,
saying he only "flicked a lighter" to show
Breashears, who he believed to be watching from a nearby
street, that he was carrying out her orders. He told Doyle
that "most of the flame was from the alcohol spray
bottle" he spritzed into the air. At one point, he did
acknowledge lighting a fire that resulted in the grass
burning outside Rae's house. Midway through the
interview, Brownlee told Officer Doyle: "If there's
one thing I know, it's fire." Brownlee also said
after the second trip, he "got out of town."
Brownlee said Breashears sent him a message to thank him for
taking care of the job, and he did not tell her otherwise.
State filed a trial information accusing Brownlee of two
counts of attempt to commit murder, as class "B"
felony, in violation of Iowa Code section 707.11 (2016)
(counts I and II), two counts of arson in the first degree, a
class "B" felony, in violation of sections 712.1(1)
and 712.2 (counts III and IV), and two counts of possession
of explosive or incendiary devices with intent to use them to
commit a public offense, a class "C" felony, in
violation of section 712.6(1) (counts V and VI). Counts I,
III, and V related to acts alleged to have occurred in
January 2016. Counts II, IV, and VI addressed the events of
February 7, 2016.
stood trial in November 2016. The jury acquitted Brownlee on
counts I, III, and V, which related to the January events. On
the second count of attempt to commit murder, the jury
returned a guilty verdict on the lesser-included offense of
assault with intent to commit serious injury, an aggravated
misdemeanor assault, in violation of sections 708.1 and
708.2(1). The jury convicted Brownlee with arson in the first
degree and possession of explosives as charged in counts IV
and VI. The sentencing court imposed concurrent sentences on
counts IV and VI and ordered the assault sentence to run
consecutively, for a total prison sentence not to exceed
Scope and ...