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State v. Abang-Ntuen

Court of Appeals of Iowa

April 18, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
DANIELLE ABANG-NTUEN, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Dallas County, Randy V. Hefner, Judge.

         Danielle Abang-Ntuen appeals her conviction of willful injury. AFFIRMED.

          John C. Audlehelm of Audlehelm Law Office, Des Moines, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Louis S. Sloven, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Considered by Vogel, P.J., and Potterfield and Mullins, JJ.

          MULLINS, JUDGE.

         Danielle Abang-Ntuen appeals her conviction of willful injury following a joint jury trial of her and her two codefendants. She claims the district court abused its discretion in denying her repeated motions for a mistrial based on the behavior of a codefendant during the trial.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings

         On July 14, 2015, Danielle Abang-Ntuen, her sister, Beatrice Abang-Ntuen, and their mother, Wonetah Einfeldt, [1] went to the home of Mulika Vinson to resolve a dispute between Danielle and Mulika. A physical altercation eventually ensued between Danielle, Beatrice, and Wonetah against Mulika, but the parties dispute the order of events and who initiated the exchange. Mulika was ultimately injured as a result of the altercation.

         On August 5, Danielle, Beatrice, and Wonetah were all charged by trial information with willful injury, a class "D" felony, in violation of Iowa Code sections 703.1, 703.2, and 708.4(2) (2015). On October 21, the State filed a motion to consolidate the trials as the three were charged as codefendants and the charges were based on the same incident. In response, Danielle filed a motion to sever and a resistance to the motion to consolidate, arguing she would suffer prejudice if tried with Beatrice and Wonetah. Danielle contended Wonetah's pretrial statements and admissions implicated her and would thus violate Bruton.[2] Additionally, she argued Wonetah's admissions during interrogation could prejudice Danielle and violate her right to a fair trial as the jury could infer that Danielle had the same or a similar intent as Wonetah. Danielle further argued that, if Wonetah declined to testify, her right of confrontation, right to cross-examine witnesses, and right to due process would be violated.

         On January 28, 2016, following a hearing, the court granted the State's motion to consolidate and denied Danielle's motion to sever, ruling that Wonetah's pretrial statements and admissions concerned only her and her intent and did not, expressly or by implication, identify or opine on Danielle or Beatrice or their intent, thus distinguishing this case from Bruton.[3] Danielle's counsel renewed the motion to sever twice, before and during the trial. The district court denied both motions, ruling that severance was not warranted because the state of the case remained the same.

         The three were tried together and Wonetah was disruptive during the proceedings. Danielle's counsel joined in several motions for a mistrial based upon this behavior, arguing that Wonetah's behavior prejudiced her and infringed upon her right to a fair trial. The court denied each of these motions. The jury found Danielle and Wonetah guilty of willful injury, as charged, while Beatrice was found guilty of the lesser-included offense of simple assault.

         As noted, Danielle appeals.

         II. Scope and Standards of Review

         This court reviews motions for mistrial for an abuse of discretion. State v. Newell, 710 N.W.2d 6, 32 (Iowa 2006). A mistrial is appropriate when an impartial verdict cannot be reached or the verdict would have to be reversed on appeal due to an obvious procedural error in the trial. Id. "[A] court is found to have abused its discretion only when defendant shows prejudice which prevents him from having a fair trial." State v. Callender, 444 N.W.2d 768, 770 (Iowa Ct. App. 1989). We will intervene only where the discretion has been clearly abused. Newell, 710 N.W.2d at 32.

         III. Analysis

         Because counsel made several motions for mistrial, we will discuss each individually to determine if the court abused its discretion by denying each one.[4]

         A. First Motion for Mistrial

         Danielle raised the first motion for mistrial on the second day of trial. At this time, jury selection had already been conducted and the parties were giving their opening statements. During the State's opening statement, Wonetah said, "Lie." After this comment, the court warned her that "[i]f I hear another word, we're going to take a recess. Okay?" The State then resumed its opening statement. At a later point in the State's opening, the following exchange occurred:

[PROSECUTOR]: They did tell the officers that Ms. Vinson threw the first punch. They also told the officers that Ms. Vinson brandished a gun before the fight began. Defendant Wonetah Einfeldt told the officers, I'm telling you right now, I beat her ass.
MS. EINFELDT: Sure did.
[PROSECUTOR]: Jeremy Cooper is going to tell you Ms. Vinson did nothing to initiate that fight. Nicholas Hardcastle is going to tell you Ms. Vinson did nothing to initiate that fight. Jeremy Cooper is going to tell you he saw no gun. He heard nothing about a gun brandished by Ms. Vinson or anyone else. Nicholas Hardcastle is going to tell you there was no gun that he saw. He never heard anybody mention a gun.
Defendant Wonetah Einfeldt, she did have some injuries. She had a scrape to her palm, and a scrape to her knee. The officers called EMTs to the police station to tend to her. They cleaned her knee and put a Band-Aid on it.
MS. EINFELDT: No, they didn't.

         After this remark, the court took a recess and asked that the jury return to the jury room. The court admonished Wonetah for her remarks. The admonishment consisted of the following exchange:

THE COURT: You may be seated. Okay. Ms. Einfeldt, I heard three exclamations from you during the state's opening statement. I warned you once that we would be taking a recess if I heard anything else, and you didn't stop. Now, ma'am, I'm going to ask you, are you able to control yourself during the rest of this trial? When an attorney is standing before the jury and making a statement, when an attorney is asking a witness questions, when a witness is answering those questions, you must be quiet. Can you do that, ma'am?
MS. EINFELDT: Your Honor, I'm confused right here because I don't understand. I didn't understand how the Court can knowingly just lie. She knows she was 17 when she committed the crime. It's a blatant lie.
THE COURT: Ma'am, your attorney, you are represented by competent counsel.
MS. EINFELDT: He's not doing anything.
THE COURT: Ma'am, there's ...

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