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Armstrong v. State

Court of Appeals of Iowa

September 26, 2018

JONATHAN ARMSTRONG, Applicant-Appellant,
v.
STATE OF IOWA, Respondent-Appellee.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Pottawattamie County, Richard H. Davidson, Judge.

         A postconviction applicant appeals the district court order denying relief on his multiple felony convictions. AFFIRMED.

          Brian S. Munnelly of Munnelly Law Office, Omaha, Nebraska, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Tyler J. Buller, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee State.

          Considered by Danilson, C.J., and Vogel and Tabor, JJ.

          TABOR, Judge.

         Jonathan Armstrong is serving a prison sentence not to exceed twenty-five years after a jury convicted him of multiple offenses for his part in a violent home invasion. He now appeals the district court's denial of postconviction relief (PCR). He raises several claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, contending his criminal trial attorney should have (1) objected to the admission of cell phone records and a black bandana[1] bearing his DNA, (2) challenged the State's process for obtaining his DNA, (3) refrained from impeaching his own client, (4) produced an alibi witness at the criminal trial, and (5) called out prosecutorial misconduct. Armstrong also alleges he received ineffective assistance of appellate counsel on direct appeal. Finally, he claims he suffered prejudice from the cumulative impact of counsel's errors. Because Armstrong cannot show a reasonable probability of a different outcome even if counsel had followed the playlist developed in the PCR application, we affirm the order denying relief.

         I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

         The jury reached its guilty verdicts after the following presentation of the facts. In the early morning hours of July 21, 2011, Armstrong and two accomplices, Alonzo Murray and Spencer Scott, broke into a Council Bluffs home looking for money or marijuana. According to Murray's testimony for the State, Armstrong and Scott covered their faces with bandanas. The intruders ordered four of the home's seven occupants out of their bedrooms at gunpoint and "pistol-whipped" a fifth victim. One occupant managed to escape and call 911 before returning to the house with a hammer to confront the assailants. The three intruders fled from the house, and Scott fired at an occupant as they left. A few blocks away, police arrested Murray-seizing his gun and cell phone. Murray identified Armstrong and Scott as his accomplices in the home invasion.

         The State charged Armstrong with attempted murder, six counts of kidnapping in the second degree, six counts of robbery in the first degree, burglary in the first degree, and carrying weapons. Armstrong filed an alibi defense. But at trial, his alibi witness, Justine Dubois, failed to appear. Armstrong testified in his own defense, telling the jury he was with his girlfriend, Dubois, and not at the break-in.

         On January 6, 2012, the jury returned guilty verdicts on first-degree burglary, first-degree robbery, five counts of kidnapping in the third degree, carrying weapons, and assault with intent to inflict serious injury (a lesser included offense of attempted murder). On direct appeal, our court affirmed Armstrong's convictions for burglary, robbery, carrying weapons, and assault with intent. Armstrong, 2013 WL 2107400, at *1. We reversed his kidnapping convictions based on his trial counsel's failure to object to a faulty jury instruction and remanded for retrial on those five counts. Id. On remand, the State dismissed the kidnapping counts.

         In February 2014, Armstrong filed his PCR application, alleging ineffective assistance of both trial and direct appeal counsel. The district court denied relief. Armstrong now appeals.

         II. Scope and Standards of Review

         We generally review PCR proceedings for correction of legal error. Lamasters v. State, 821 N.W.2d 856, 862 (Iowa 2012). But when the application alleges ineffective assistance of counsel, our review is de novo. Allison v. State, 914 N.W.2d 866, 870 (Iowa 2018).

         III. Discussion

         A. Ineffective Assistance of Trial Counsel

         As the PCR applicant, Armstrong must show, by a preponderance of the evidence, trial counsel breached an essential duty and prejudice resulted. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984); Lamasters, 821 N.W.2d at 866. We will affirm the district court's PCR denial if either prong is unsatisfied. Anfinson v. State, 758 N.W.2d 496, 499 (Iowa 2008).

         On the breach-of-duty prong, we presume trial counsel was competent, and Armstrong bears the burden of proving the representation fell below "prevailing professional norms." See Lamasters, 821 N.W.2d at 866. Miscalculated trial strategies or simple mistakes in judgment generally do not rise to the level of ineffective assistance of counsel. Id. On the prejudice prong, Armstrong must demonstrate a different outcome would have been reasonably probable but for counsel's errors. See id. A reasonable probability is sufficient to undermine our confidence in the outcome. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. If Armstrong can only show the errors "conceivably" influenced the bottom line, the standard is not met. See id.

          1. Cell Phone Records ...


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