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State v. Knudsen

Court of Appeals of Iowa

October 10, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
PAUL R. KNUDSEN, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Grundy County, Joel A. Dalrymple, Judge.

         The defendant challenges his convictions and sentences for three counts of sexual abuse in the third degree and one count of lascivious conduct with a minor.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Vidhya K. Reddy, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

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

          Heard by Vogel, P.J., Tabor, J., and Blane, S.J. [*]


         Paul Knudsen challenges his convictions and sentences for three counts of sexual abuse in the third degree and one count of lascivious conduct with a minor. Knudsen challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support one of his convictions for sexual abuse in the third degree, claims the court wrongly applied the rape-shield law to prevent the admission of evidence of prior allegations of sexual abuse made by the complaining witnesses, and maintains the court abused its discretion in preventing the defense's expert from testifying that three-way sexual abuse involving the mother is rare. He also maintains he did not knowingly and voluntarily enter into the stipulation that he was subject to the sentencing enhancements.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         Knudsen was charged by trial information with three counts of sexual abuse in the third degree (counts I, II, and III) and one count of lascivious conduct with a minor (count IV). Each of the three counts of sexual abuse involved the same minor child, A.M., who lived in the same home as Knudsen. The dates the events were alleged to have occurred and A.M.'s age at the time of the events differed. In count IV, it was alleged that between September 8, 2009 and August 2012, Knudsen forced, persuaded, or coerced A.L., a minor who Knudsen was in a position of authority over, to disrobe or partially disrobe for the purpose of satisfying at least one of their sexual desires. For sentencing-enhancement purposes, it was additionally alleged that Knudsen had been previously convicted of sexual abuse.

         Leading up to the jury trial, the State filed a motion to strike certain defense witnesses and a motion in limine. In its motion to strike witnesses, the State asked the court to prevent Hollinda Wakefield from testifying at trial, maintaining that based on the questions asked of Wakefield in her deposition, Knudsen "clearly . . . intends to call this witness solely to comment on the credibility of the witnesses through expert testimony." In his response to the State's motion, Knudsen maintained he wanted to call Wakefield as an expert in the field of child sexual abuse and claimed she would testify to a number of things, including "how unusual it would be for a mother to be involved in a three way sexual relationship with her daughter and [Knudsen]."

         In its motion in limine, the State asked the court to direct the defense not to refer at any stage of the trial to "[a]ny evidence regarding either of the victims' past sexual history or any other matters in violation of Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.412," including A.M.'s "prior sexual abuse by other family members." Knudsen responded:

The defense intends to explore the past sexual assaults of the two alleged victims in this case. The defense does not intend to explore the details of the assaults, or to violate the tenants of the rape/shield laws, but does intend to ask each alleged victim the following:
a. Were you sexually assaulted in the past?
b. Did this sexual assault occur while Paul Knudsen was married to your mother?
c. Who committed the sexual assault?
d. Did you report the sexual assault to your mother and [Knudsen]?
e. Did they support you in your allegations?
f. Did they report your allegations to law enforcement?
g. Was the perpetrator prosecuted?
h. Was the perpetrator convicted?
i. Were you aware of the punishment awarded the perpetrator?
j. At the time you made allegations against the prior perpetrators, did you make any accusations against either your mother or [Knudsen]?
k. Have you made any other allegations of sexual abuse since the allegations against Paul Knudsen?
l. Did those allegations result in charges against these alleged perpetrators?

         After a joint hearing on the pretrial motions, the court issued a written ruling in which the court found "Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.412, otherwise known as the rape shield law, to be dispositive" on the issue of whether Knudsen could ask the complaining witnesses about their experiences involving prior sexual abuse by family members. In sustaining the State's motion in limine, the court "considered the arguments and proposed evidence by the defense, and finds, however relevant, that the probative value of such evidence fails to outweigh the danger of unfair prejudice and as such the evidence is not admissible." Regarding the State's motion to strike defense witness Wakefield, the court did not prevent the witness from testifying completely but did outline areas about which Wakefield was prevented from testifying. The court ruled that Wakefield could not testify that a three-way sexual encounter involving a mother, her daughter, and Knudsen would be "unusual" or "rare," stating:

First and foremost, with the evidence presented or arguments of counsel thus far, the Court finds the witness lacks any expertise in her opinion relating to the purported testimony. Even if qualified as an expert in the area in question, the Court does not find any testimony from the witness to be permissible, nor does it find any such testimony would aid the finder of fact in this matter. Consequently, the [S]tate's motion relating to any questions of that nature shall be sustained.

         The jury trial took place over several days in February 2017. During the testimony of the nurse who performed a sexual-assault examination on A.M., the nurse was asked what type of injuries she is looking for during the exam. She testified:

Well, you know, if there is any old injury that may have healed. Sometimes you'll see kind of some scarring in different areas. You may see in the hymen there may be a healed we call it a transection or which is where the hymen may have been torn and then healed but that split is still there.
You may have what's called a cleft, which is kind of where it's been worn away but it's not necessarily been completely split. You may have some-if it's an acute type of thing you may see some bleeding, you may see some abrasions, which is kind of a roughening of the skin where you might have some redness or some swelling, or you might even see some bruising depending on what happened. So those are all the kinds of things that we're looking for when we're doing that.

         When asked if she "note[d] anything that may be considered an injury" while examining A.M., the nurse testified, "Yes. . . . I described it as a cleft." The State admitted into evidence and published to the jury four pictures of A.M.'s hymen that were taken during the physical exam. The nurse also opined that the cleft could be "normal for that person's body to look like that"-a "normal variation."

         Following the nurse's testimony, the court reconsidered its prior ruling on the State's motion in limine regarding whether the defense could mention or ask questions about prior sexual abuse A.M. had ...

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