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State v. Lamb Carson

Court of Appeals of Iowa

November 7, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
RICHARD RYAN LAMB CARSON, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Clarke County, John D. Lloyd, Judge.

         Defendant appeals conviction and sentencing of two counts of first-degree murder based on his denial of fair trial due to prosecutorial error and ineffective assistance of counsel.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Brenda J. Gohr, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Sharon K. Hall, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Heard by Vogel, P.J., and Vaitheswaran and McDonald, JJ.


         A jury found Richard Ryan Lamb Carson guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. Carson appeals his convictions and sentence after the district court denied his motion for a mistrial. He claims the prosecutor made multiple comments during closing arguments that denied him the right to a fair trial. He further asserts his counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the prosecutor's questions during cross-examination. Because the prosecutor's comments did not prejudice Carson, the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Carson's motion for mistrial. We preserve the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel for possible postconviction relief.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings

         The jury could have reasonably found the following facts. On January 23, 2015, Carson and his girlfriend, Tracy Johnson, went to the home of Chris Elben and Lynn Sutton for dinner. Elben's niece, Victoria Byers, was staying at the home and was also present that evening. Two of Byers's friends, Noe Flores and Erick Reyna, came to the home to go out with her that night. According to Byers, Flores entered the home and told her that he would wait in the car until she was ready to leave. Flores went back outside where he and Reyna waited in a black Honda that was parked in the driveway.

         Carson left the home for a brief period while Byers prepared to go out with Flores and Reyna; when he came back, he told Johnson that he had "kicked somebody's ass and he didn't know what to do."[1] Carson and Elben then left the home together. Later that evening, Sutton received a phone call from Elben indicating that he and Carson needed a ride.[2] Johnson and Sutton drove Carson's truck to a house in the country and picked up the two men. The group briefly returned to the Elben/Sutton house before they went to Carson's mother's home. At the mother's home, the two men went to the bathroom where they threw their clothes and shoes in a trash bag, showered, and washed their hands and a gun with bleach. Johnson heard Carson "talk[ing] about shooting one of them in the head and describing that it smelled terrible." Johnson and Carson then returned to Johnson's apartment.

         On January 25, while Johnson and Carson were watching television at Johnson's apartment, Carson said he thought someone was outside with a gun. After Carson asked Johnson if there was a storm drain nearby, he went to the bedroom and returned with a gun. She had seen him with that gun before the events of January 23. He put the gun in his pants and left the apartment. Later that night, law enforcement found Flores and Reyna dead from gunshot wounds. The bodies were inside a black Honda, which was located on the property of Carson's former mother-in-law. The next day, law enforcement found the gun Carson had in Johnson's apartment in a storm drain one-half block from the apartment.

         Carson testified and admitted to having shot Flores and Reyna but claimed he did so in self-defense. His version of the events on the evening of January 23 began when he went outside the Elben/Sutton home to retrieve a pack of cigarettes. Seeing the parked Honda, he knocked on the rear driver's side window to ask if someone had a lighter. A voice from inside the car told him to come to the front passenger's side. When he walked around the car, the window rolled down and the passenger pointed a gun at Carson. The passenger said, "I've got you now," and fired a shot that missed Carson. Carson testified he grabbed the firearm, twisted it free from the passenger's hand, and fired two shots at the passenger's head. He then saw the driver reach for a short barrel revolver, so he fired two more shots at the driver. With the driver still moving, Carson fired one more shot, "center mass on his body," after which the driver went into convulsions, dropped his firearm, and slumped over the steering wheel.

         According to Carson's testimony, he was scared and shaking after the shootings. He wiped off the gun and dropped it back into the car. The gun landed on metal, and Carson discovered a large automatic pistol and a magazine clip in the passenger's lap. After a few minutes, he went back into the house and declared, "I f**ked a couple of guys up."[3] He pulled Elben aside and said, "A couple guys just tried to kill me.... I shot them. . . . I took one of the guns away from them and I fired back." When he and Elben went outside, he claimed the Honda had disappeared.

         After the May 1 to May 4, 2017 jury trial, Carson was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, class "A" felonies, for which two consecutive life sentences were imposed. He appeals.

         II. Standard of Review

         We review denials of mistrials and prosecutorial error claims for abuse of discretion. State v. Plain, 898 N.W.2d 801, 810-11 (Iowa 2017). "An abuse of discretion will only be found when a court acts on grounds clearly untenable or to an extent clearly unreasonable." State v. Leckington, 713 N.W.2d 208, 216 (Iowa 2006).

         We review ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims de novo. State v. Straw, 709 N.W.2d 128, 133 (Iowa 2006). "If an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim is raised on direct appeal from the criminal proceedings, we may decide the record is adequate to decide the claim or may choose to preserve the claim for postconviction proceedings." Id. (citing Iowa Code § 814.7(3) (2005)).

         III. Denial of Motion for Mistrial; Prosecutorial Error[4]

         Carson asserts he was denied a fair trial due to prosecutorial error that occurred during the trial. "Prosecutors have a dual function. They must prosecute with vigor and diligence, and, at the same time, be alert to assure the defendant a fair trial." State v. Webb, 244 N.W.2d 332, 333 (Iowa 1976). "In order to establish a violation of the right to a fair trial, a defendant must show both (1) error or misconduct and (2) prejudice." Plain, 898 N.W.2d at 818. Carson points to three situations where prosecutorial error allegedly occurred during closing argument: (1) the prosecutor repeatedly implied Carson was a liar, (2) the prosecutor asked about Carson invoking his right to an attorney, and (3) the prosecutor's use of the term "insanity."

         A. Prosecutorial Error

         A prosecutor "is entitled to some latitude during closing argument in analyzing evidence admitted in the trial." State v. Phillips, 226 N.W.2d 16, 19 (Iowa 1975). "[A] prosecutor may argue the reasonable inferences and conclusions to be drawn from the evidence" but may not "express his or her personal beliefs." State v. Graves, 668 N.W.2d 860, 874 (Iowa 2003).

         Carson objected to multiple comments from the prosecutor's closing and rebuttal arguments that he argues impliedly called him a liar or were otherwise improper. First, the prosecutor said:

To be clear, this case is not about insanity. The defendant was evaluated and found competent. . . . That is not what this case is about. His words have been designed to mislead and to draw attention away from the facts. Again, my standing here saying something no matter how outrageous it is, does not mean it is true. He makes these outrageous claims, but they're mostly designed to keep him from being held accountable.

         Carson argues this comment raised the issue of competency to "improperly cause the jury to draw the inference that the defendant was a liar." Competency was first discussed during cross-examination after Carson struggled to answer the prosecutor's questions:

Q. Okay. Tracy Johnson was your girlfriend?
A. Yes, she was.
Q. You were living with her?
A. I was staying part time at my mother's-Marjorie-house, and then I would stay over at her house once in a while.
But I had my oldest boy, Colton. He was right around fifteen years old. When he hit about fourteen or fifteen, him and his mom started bumping heads. I don't have forty-nine percent custody now because he turned eighteen years old on the twenty-seventh of this last month, but I had forty-nine percent custody of him and his mom had fifty-one percent custody, and they were bumping heads, so he was staying with me and my mother and going to school.
Q. My question to you: Tracy Johnson, you were pretty much living with her, and she was your girlfriend?
A. I didn't live with her full time. I stayed there off and on.
Q. Let's be clear about something. You have been evaluated and found to be competent to stand trial; correct?
A. I had to fight to do that.
Q. And so you have been evaluated and found ...

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