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State v. Brownlee

Court of Appeals of Iowa

February 21, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
TIMOTHY DALE BROWNLEE, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Lee (North) County, Mark E. Kruse, Judge.

         A defendant challenges his convictions for assault with intent to commit serious injury, first-degree arson, and possession of incendiary materials.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Mary K. Conroy, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Timothy M. Hau, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

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

          TABOR, Judge.

         When 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.

         Because 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.

         I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

         Around 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.

         No charges were filed in connection with the fire until Tanisha Brownlee[1]came 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.

         Tanisha 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."[2] 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 more."

         After 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, [3] 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.

         The 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.

         Brownlee 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 twenty-seven years.

         II. Scope and ...

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