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State v. Benson

Supreme Court of Iowa

October 19, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee,
v.
OWEN F. BENSON, Appellant.

         On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Woodbury County, Jeffrey L. Poulson, Judge.

         The defendant seeks further review of a court of appeals decision that affirmed his convictions for assault causing bodily injury and child endangerment.

          Priscilla E. Forsyth, Sioux City, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Kevin Cmelik, Assistant Attorney General, Patrick Jennings, County Attorney, and Kristine Timmins and Joshua Widman, Assistant County Attorneys, for appellee.

          CHRISTENSEN, JUSTICE.

         In this appeal, Owen Benson contends he did not cross the line from lawful corporal punishment to criminal conduct. Benson maintains there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction for both assault causing bodily injury and child endangerment because the State did not prove his actions exceeded the scope of legal corporal punishment. Similarly, he contends the district court abused its discretion in denying his motion for a new trial because the verdict was contrary to the weight of the evidence. For the reasons set forth below, we conclude the evidence was sufficient to support Benson's convictions, and the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion for new trial.

         Benson also claims that the jury instructions (1) misled the jury because the district court failed to provide a marshaling instruction explaining which form of intent applied to which charge, and (2) did not adequately describe specific intent. For the reasons set forth below, we conclude the jury instructions were prejudicially erroneous, and we reverse Benson's convictions and sentence and remand for new trial.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         On March 6, 2016, Owen Benson was watching B.B., G.B., and Z.B.-three of his fiancé's children-until their father arrived to take them to his home as part of an arranged custody agreement. The children were approximately eleven, ten, and eight years old at the time. Benson joined the children on the porch carrying the wooden handle from a toy broomstick, upset about alleged damage the children caused to some furniture. Benson subsequently hit B.B. and G.B. twice each on the buttocks with the broom handle. Next, Benson hit Z.B. twice on the back of his upper legs with the broom handle. The children's father arrived soon after to take them to his home.

         The next morning, the children's father noticed bruises on the back of Z.B.'s legs. G.B. and B.B. did not have bruises. The father photographed the bruises and reported them to a school counselor. The school counselor reported the bruises to the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS), and a child protective investigation commenced.

         Ruth Stewart, the DHS investigator, conducted a home visit at Benson's home, where Benson admitted hitting Z.B. but declined to answer her questions fully. When Stewart met with Z.B., she observed bruises on the back of his legs that were "[a]pproximately three inches long, maybe an inch or more in width, and the one specifically on his right leg had a dark redness around it" similar to an outline. After observing Z.B.'s bruises and speaking with Benson and his fiancé's children, Stewart contacted law enforcement and referred Z.B. to the Child Advocacy Center at Mercy Medical Center in Sioux City for a forensic interview.

         The forensic interview with Dr. Michael Jung from the Child Advocacy Center revealed that Z.B.'s bruising was a "high-impact acceleration/deceleration injury" resulting from an object. Dr. Jung noted that the injury "wasn't from sitting on something [and] it required significant velocity or speed to injure the tissue in that manner." Further, he explained,

The central sparing, where there's no bruising in the inner part of the injury, is less injured than the surrounding tissue, and that occurs when tissue is injured in a high-impact, accelerating type of injury that actually shears the tissue on the edge of the object, and it requires a fairly high velocity or impact to do that.

         Following the investigation, the State charged Benson with assault causing bodily injury in violation of Iowa Code sections 708.1(2)(a) and 708.2(2) (2016), a serious misdemeanor, and child endangerment in violation of Iowa Code sections 726.6(1)(a) and 726.6(7), an aggravated misdemeanor, for hitting Z.B. The State did not charge Benson for hitting B.B. or G.B. A jury convicted Benson of assault causing bodily injury and child endangerment. Benson filed a motion for a new trial, arguing the verdict was contrary to the weight of the evidence, and the district court denied this motion at Benson's sentencing hearing.

         Benson appealed his convictions, presenting multiple claims on appeal. First, he claimed there was insufficient evidence to support his convictions since the evidence showed his actions were within the bounds of legal corporal punishment. Second, he alleged the district court abused its discretion in denying his motion for a new trial because the verdicts were contrary to the weight of the evidence. Third, Benson argued the district court erred by instructing the jury on both general and specific intent without providing a marshaling instruction explaining which form of intent applied to which charge. Finally, he asserted the jury instructions did not adequately describe specific intent.

         The court of appeals affirmed the judgment of the district court. It concluded there was sufficient evidence to support Benson's convictions, especially given Benson's testimony that he intended for the punishment to "sting." The court of appeals also determined the jury instructions were not confusing or misleading since the marshaling instruction "clearly stated the specified purpose in mind." Benson sought further review, which we granted.

         II. Standard of Review.

         We review claims of insufficient evidence for correction of errors at law, "and we will uphold a verdict if substantial evidence supports it." State v. Ramirez, 895 N.W.2d 884, 890 (Iowa 2017). Substantial evidence supports a verdict "if, 'when viewed in the light most favorable to the State, it can convince a rational jury that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.'" State v. Wickes, 910 N.W.2d 554, 563 (Iowa 2018) (quoting State v. Reed, 875 N.W.2d 693, 705 (Iowa 2016)). Moreover, "[w]e generally review rulings on motions for new trial asserting a verdict is contrary to the weight of the evidence for an abuse of discretion." Id. at 563-64 (quoting State v. Ary, 877 N.W.2d 686, 706 (Iowa 2016)). An abuse of discretion occurs when the district court "exercises its discretion on grounds clearly untenable or to an extent clearly unreasonable" in such a manner that the district court's decision "is not supported by substantial evidence or . . . is based on an erroneous application of the law." Id. at 564 (quoting State v. Hill, 878 N.W.2d 269, 272 (Iowa 2016)).

         "[W]e review challenges to jury instructions for correction of errors at law." Alcala v. Marriott Int'l, Inc., 880 N.W.2d 699, 707 (Iowa 2016) (quoting Anderson v. State, 692 N.W.2d 360, 363 (Iowa 2005)). Erroneous jury instructions warrant "reversal when prejudice results." State v. Coleman, 907 N.W.2d 124, 138 (Iowa 2018). Prejudice results when jury instructions mislead the jury or materially misstate the law. Id. We also "review refusals to give a requested jury instruction for correction of errors at law." Alcala, 880 N.W.2d at 707. In doing so, we consider the jury instructions as a whole rather than in isolation to determine whether they correctly state the law. State v. Harrison, 914 N.W.2d 178, 188 (Iowa 2018).

         III. ...


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