from the Iowa District Court for Wapello County, Joel D.
Yenger appeals his convictions for two counts of first-degree
murder following a jury trial.
C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Mary K. Conroy,
Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.
J. Miller, Attorney General, and Louis S. Sloven, Assistant
Attorney General, for appellee.
by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Doyle and Tabor, JJ.
VAITHESWARAN, Presiding Judge.
set in a home north of Ottumwa resulted in the death of two
occupants. An investigation turned up no solid leads until a
decade later. At that time, the State charged Christopher
Yenger with two counts of first-degree murder. A jury found
him guilty as charged. On appeal, Yenger contends (1) the
State presented insufficient evidence to corroborate
accomplice testimony, (2) his trial attorney was ineffective
in failing to challenge certain jury instructions, and (3)
the district court provided inadequate reasons for denying
his post-trial motions.
Corroboration of Accomplice Testimony
Rule of Criminal Procedure 2.21(3) requires the corroboration
of accomplice testimony:
A conviction cannot be had upon the testimony of an
accomplice or a solicited person, unless corroborated by
other evidence which shall tend to connect the defendant with
the commission of the offense; and the corroboration is not
sufficient if it merely shows the commission of the offense
or the circumstances thereof.
district court designated one man-Zachary Dye-an accomplice
as a matter of law. See State v. Douglas, 675 N.W.2d
567, 571 (Iowa 2004) ("When the facts and circumstances
are undisputed and permit only one inference, whether a
witness is an accomplice is a question of law for the
court."). The court instructed the jurors they could
also find a second man-Kyle Jameson-an accomplice. See
id. ("In view of the contrary inferences that could
be drawn from the evidence, it was for the jury to choose
which inferences were warranted under the testimony given at
trial."). However, the court did not give the jurors a
special interrogatory asking whether they found Jameson to be
men testified for the State and implicated Yenger. Yenger
moved for judgment of acquittal on the ground the State
failed to present sufficient evidence to corroborate their
testimony. The court denied the motion.
appeal, Yenger argues Jameson, too, was an accomplice and,
accordingly, his testimony could not be used to corroborate
the testimony of Dye. See id. at 572 (stating
"the testimony of one accomplice may not corroborate the
testimony of another accomplice"). The State responds
that, even if Jameson was an accomplice, foreclosing reliance
on his testimony as corroborative of Dye's testimony,
there was ample independent evidence to corroborate both
their stories. In addressing this question, we note,
"Corroborative evidence need not be strong as long as it
can fairly be said that it tends to connect the accused with
the commission of the crime and supports the credibility of
the accomplice[s]." State v. Barnes, 791 N.W.2
817, 824 (Iowa 2010) (quoting State v. Berney, 378
N.W.2d 915, 918 (Iowa 1985)).
testified he, Jameson, and Yenger went to a party. Yenger got
into a fight, was head-butted by a man, and ended up with a
bleeding, swollen nose. The trio was asked to leave the
party. On their way to Dye's apartment, Yenger said that
"something had to be done." He was "pissed
off" and "said he wanted to catch the house on
fire." The three decided to return to the party
"[t]o set the house on fire." On the way, they
stopped at a gas station. Yenger got out and "filled a
beer bottle full of gasoline." He "stuffed a paper
towel or napkins in the top of the beer bottle" to
"mak[e] a Molotov cocktail, " which Dye described
as "kind of a gas bomb." Dye and Yenger got out of
the vehicle. When they got "right in front of the house,
" Yenger lit the paper towel in the beer bottle and
"threw it at the house." Dye heard "glass
breaking" and saw "the house light up" and
"flames go up." They "ran as fast as [they]
could back to the vehicle." They turned and found
"the house was fully in a blaze."
following morning, the three learned the house burned down
and two people died. Dye and Yenger decided to concoct a
story that they "went to the party, " "[t]here
was a fight, " they "got back in the car, "
they "[w]ent to [Dye's] apartment, " and they
"all passed out." Yenger later told Dye "to
stick to the script" and "don't talk about
it." After Dye was jailed, he received a note from
Yenger stating "we have this thing beat" and
"stick to the script."
similarly testified to their attendance at the party. When
they were leaving, he said he heard Yenger "arguing with
a guy." Yenger got into the back seat of the car and
"was kind of holding . . . his face or his mouth."
Yenger said, "[H]e was going to get them back or
something." On the way to Dye's apartment, Yenger
"said something about going back and setting the house
on fire." When they arrived at the apartment, Yenger got
out and, "a couple minutes" later, Yenger
"showed back up to the vehicle and he had a gas
can." The three returned to the party. Yenger got out of
the car with the gas can. He went up to the house and tried
"to set a tree on fire." Jameson "kept seeing
kind of little poofs of fire shoot up and then go back
down." He twice saw "a bright ball of fire."
Yenger ran back to the car and they took off. The next
morning, after learning what happened, Yenger told Jameson
"if anyone asked, to tell them we just went out to the
party and was drinking and went home and passed out." In
an interview, Jameson conveyed the concocted story to law
enforcement officers. Later, he "started feeling really
bad" and, in a second interview, he told the officers
"the whole story." When he was confronted with
pictures of the crime scene and saw that there were no trees
next to the house, he told an officer he believed Yenger
"poured gas on the house and lit it on fire."
were certainly discrepancies between Dye's and
Jameson's versions of events, not the least of which were
the descriptions of the container holding the gas. But both
men consistently said Yenger started the fire.
did not testify at trial. But in pretrial statements to two
individuals, he essentially admitted his involvement in the
crimes. See Douglas, 675 N.W.2d at 572 ("[A]
defendant's out-of-court confessions and admissions may
corroborate the testimony of an accomplice.").
Jeramia Gillespie testified he asked Yenger if he would
"be okay with" engaging in illegal activities.
Yenger responded that, about ten years earlier, "he was
involved in a house fire that killed two boys." Yenger
explained "he and Zach Dye were attending a party and
they got into it with the people that were there
already." They left, but returned to the party with
"like a Molotov cocktail . . . to get back at the people
that made them leave." According to Gillespie, Yenger
said he "firebombed the place where the party was
also told fellow jailhouse resident Christopher Showalter
"he had two bodies and that's what he was there
for." He explained he was with Dye and Jameson, and he
saw "a flash of light" from the car. Yenger told
Showalter, "[T]hey say that he caught a tree on fire,
and that it was wet, and that if anything, the house caught
the tree on fire." While in jail, Showalter heard Yenger
tell Dye, "Keep your head up. Keep your stories
straight. We can get through this if our stories match."
According to Showalter, Yenger told another ...