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State v. Christensen

Court of Appeals of Iowa

April 18, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
LEE SAMUEL CHRISTENSEN, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Emmet County, David A. Lester, Judge.

         Lee Samuel Christensen appeals his conviction for second-degree murder following a jury trial.

          Leon F. Spies of Spies, Pavelich & Foley, Iowa City, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Kelli A. Huser, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Heard by Danilson, C.J., and Vaitheswaran, Doyle, Tabor, and McDonald, JJ. Vogel, J., takes no part.

          PER CURIAM.

         Lee Samuel Christensen shot a young man who was seeing a woman he once dated. The State charged Christensen with first-degree murder. The defense conceded Christensen was the shooter but argued he acted out of passion, warranting a verdict of voluntary manslaughter, the second of three lesser-included offenses. A jury found him guilty of second-degree murder, the first of the three lesser-included offenses.

         On appeal, Christensen raises several issues. We find dispositive his claim of juror misconduct based on the introduction of extraneous information into jury deliberations.

         I. Juror Misconduct

         Background Proceedings. The proceedings leading up to the claim of juror misconduct are as follows. During the six-day trial, the district court repeatedly admonished the jurors "not to converse among" themselves "or with anyone else on any subject connected with this case." They were also instructed not to "allow anyone to speak with" them "about this case." If someone did, they were to "walk away and . . . not listen." If a person persisted in talking to them or in their presence, the court instructed the jurors to "report it immediately" to the clerk or to the court. The jurors' phones were taken away during deliberations. The jurors were "admonished not to listen to, view, or read any form of media while this case is in progress." They were told, "This includes . . . the full gamut of social media, the internet, cell phone communications, Instagram, Twitter." They were instructed not to "report to anybody on Facebook or any of those [social media] that" they had "been selected as a juror" to avoid inadvertently receiving something they were "not supposed to have." Finally, the court stated, "Our goal here is to have this case decided strictly upon the evidence and testimony presented at trial. So we do not want you to see any outside information that's not presented here."

         At the conclusion of trial, the district court reminded the jurors, "You may not communicate about this case before reaching your verdict. This includes cell phones, and electronic media such as text messages, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, email, etc."

         Several jurors disregarded these admonitions. After the jury announced its verdict, Christensen moved for a new trial. He asserted:

During deliberations, the jury was exposed to and influenced by extraneous social media information which was considered by the jurors during the deliberative process. This act exceeded the tolerable bounds of jury deliberation and appeared calculated to, and with reasonable probability did, influence the jury's verdict.

         Christensen claimed his "rights under the constitutions of the United States and the State of Iowa to a fair trial and due process of law were violated for all the reasons urged above." Christensen simultaneously moved to poll the jury. The district court granted the motion to poll.

         Following a hearing, the court denied the new trial motion. The court began by conceding the jury received unauthorized information:

The testimony from the majority of jurors during the post-trial hearing confirms they were made aware of extraneous information concerning the possibility of a riot or some other sort of public disturbance or violence occurring if the jury did not find Christensen guilty of something.

         Turning to whether the information was prejudicial, the court stated, "[S]uch information, if actually considered by the jury during their deliberations, would certainly be prejudicial." But, in the court's view,

While there [was] some testimony suggesting that the extraneous information about the possibility of a public disturbance, a riot, or public violence was brought to light prior to them reaching their verdict, the greater preponderance of the evidence establishes that it was not until after the jury had reached their verdict that such evidence was discussed.

         The court concluded, "[T]he jury could not have exceeded the tolerable bounds of their deliberations."

         On appeal, Christensen argues, "There can be no doubt that the exposure of one or more jurors to Facebook postings or conversations with family members about the possibility of a riot or danger to the jurors in the event Christensen was not found guilty of murder constitutes misconduct." He asserts the misconduct "was calculated to, and with reasonable probability did, influence the verdict."

         Standard of Review. In State v. Webster, 865 N.W.2d 223 (Iowa 2015), the defendant filed a new trial motion raising a rule-based claim as well as a constitutionally-grounded claim of juror misconduct and bias. The district court denied the motion. Webster, 865 N.W.2d at 230. On appeal, the court acknowledged constitutional claims trigger de novo review, but concluded the defendant waived the constitutional claim and review was for an abuse of discretion. Id. at 231 n.4, 232. Given the posture of the case and the court's "general[] agree[ment] with the fact-finding of the district court, " the court declined to decide "the proper standard of review regarding fact-finding by the district court in the context of a motion for a new trial." Id. at 231 n.4.

         We are faced with the same procedural posture. The district court denied the misconduct/bias ground for a new trial under Iowa Rule of Criminal Procedure 2.24(2)(b)(2) (2015). The court also cited rule 2.24(2)(b)(9), permitting a court to grant a new trial if the defendant has not received a fair and impartial trial, but did not address the constitutional claim of juror misconduct. Accordingly, our review of the district court's ultimate conclusion on Christensen's new trial motion is for an abuse of discretion.

         That said, we are faced with the question the Webster court was able to avoid-the standard of review of district court fact-findings-because, unlike the court in Webster, we disagree with the district court's key fact-findings supporting the ruling. The rule-based claim of juror misconduct is grounded in the constitution and, specifically, a defendant's right to a fair trial. See Iowa Rs. Crim. P. 2.24(2)(b)(9); 2.24(2)(b)(3) (authorizing a new trial where "the jury . . . ha[s] been guilty of any misconduct tending to prevent a fair and just consideration of the case"); State v. Weitzel, 905 N.W.2d 397, 403 (Iowa 2017) (declining to "strictly demarcate a clear line between rule-based and due-process claims"). Although Christensen waived his constitutional claim, we believe the constitutional undergirding of the rule and the district court's reliance on the rule requiring a fair and impartial trial mandate de novo review of the fact findings. We proceed to the merits.

         Rule 2.24(2)(b). Rule 2.24(2)(b)(2) permits a new trial if "the jury has received any evidence . . . not authorized by the court." Iowa R. Crim. P. 2.24(2)(b)(2). Receipt of this type of evidence constitutes misconduct. See Webster, 865 N.W.2d at 235 ("There can be no question that communications with third parties about the merits of a case outside the confines of jury deliberations is a species of misconduct."); id. at 232 ("Juror misconduct ordinarily relates to actions of a juror, often contrary to the court's instructions or admonitions, which impair the integrity of the fact finding process at trial."); State v. Johnson, 445 N.W.2d 337, 342 (Iowa 1989) ("[I]ntroduction of additional, outside information is beyond permissible bounds."), overruled on other grounds by State v. Hill, 878 N.W.2d 269 (Iowa 2016); see also Iowa R. Evid. 5.606(b) (allowing a juror to testify about whether "[e]xtraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury's attention"). But "[w]e have consistently held misconduct with respect to the jury . . . will not be grounds for a new trial unless prejudice is shown." State v. Carey, 165 N.W.2d 27, 29 (Iowa 1969). We turn to the record on juror misconduct.

         Pre-Deliberaton Facebook Contact. Before deliberations began, a juror reported she logged onto Facebook during a lunchbreak and noticed Christensen's relative was listed on her profile as one of several top friends. She advised the court she met the relative on a "girls' weekend trip" three years earlier and they became Facebook friends. She denied routine contact with the relative and denied having any conversation with her about the case. She stated the contact would not prevent her from being a fair and impartial juror in the case. The district court decided to keep the juror on the jury.

         The juror did not receive extraneous information. But the contact highlighted jurors' blatant disregard of the district court's unambiguous admonition to refrain from the use of social media during the trial. See Webster, 865 N.W.2d at 239 (disapproving of a juror's click of the "like" button on a comment by the victim's stepmother).

         Post-Deliberation Extraneous Information. Several jurors reported gaining access to extraneous information after they began deliberating. This information is the crux of the misconduct claim.

         One juror was asked,

[B]efore you and the other jurors reached your verdict and announced it in the courtroom, did you hear or see any comments from news media, from social media, from comments in the community, among friends, people that you know that there might be some sort of public disturbance or riot or public ...

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