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State v. Yenger

Court of Appeals of Iowa

June 20, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
CHRISTOPHER YENGER, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Wapello County, Joel D. Yates, Judge.

         Christopher Yenger appeals his convictions for two counts of first-degree murder following a jury trial.

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

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

          Heard by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Doyle and Tabor, JJ.

          VAITHESWARAN, Presiding Judge.

         A fire 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.

         I. Corroboration of Accomplice Testimony

         Iowa 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.

         The 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 an accomplice.

         Both 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.

         On 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)).

         Dye 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."

         The 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."

         Jameson 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."

         There 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.

         Yenger 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.").

         Acquaintance 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 at."

         Yenger 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 ...

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