from the Iowa District Court for Woodbury County, John D.
Spencer appeals his conviction for attempted murder.
C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Melinda J. Nye,
Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.
J. Miller, Attorney General, and Linda J. Hines, Assistant
Attorney General, for appellee.
Considered by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Doyle and Mullins, JJ.
Spencer appeals his conviction for attempted murder. Through
appellate counsel, Spencer asserts the district court abused
its discretion when it permitted the State to introduce
certain evidence of drugs found near the scene of the alleged
crime, arguing the evidence was irrelevant, overwhelmingly
prejudicial compared to any probative value, not inextricably
intertwined with evidence of the charged offense, and
prejudicial to the point any error was not harmless. In a
supplemental brief, Spencer-representing himself-makes
numerous assertions. Upon our review, we affirm the district
court's ruling, and we preserve for possible
postconviction-relief proceedings Spencer's claims
relating to ineffective assistance of trial.
Background Facts and Proceedings.
patrol in the early morning hours of February 26, 2017,
Woodbury County Deputy Sheriff Troy Tadlock attempted to stop
a Lincoln MKZ for an equipment violation and a traffic
violation. The car did not stop, and a high-speed chase
ensued. At one point, the car stopped, and the driver of the
Lincoln, Brittney Hood, hopped out of the vehicle and took
off running. As Deputy Tadlock ran up to the car, it suddenly
sped away. Deputy Tadlock then pursued Hood on foot and
another deputy in a separate patrol car, Deputy Michael Lenz,
picked up the chase of the eluding Lincoln. The deputy,
reaching speeds of 70 to 80 miles per hour, was unable to
catch up with the car. The chase ended when the Lincoln
swerved off the road into a ditch and got stuck in the snow.
As Deputy Lenz pulled his patrol car behind the Lincoln,
Melvin Spencer, clad in a red jacket, reached out from the
driver's side window with a handgun and shot toward the
deputy. The deputy ducked for cover down behind his car's
dash. When the shots ended, he got out of the car and took a
position behind its driver's door and began returning
fire at Spencer. Spencer fired back and the deputy then took
cover at the rear of his patrol car and continued to return
fire. At some point, Spencer got out of the car on its
passenger side and ran on foot away from the deputy. In the
meantime, Deputy Lenz observed a second person in a black
jacket next to the Lincoln's passenger's side. The
deputy believed the second person was coming towards him and
he fired at him. The second person sustained a gunshot wound
and went down to the ground. The second person was then
search for Spencer was performed by the SWAT team, and he was
found approximately one half to three-quarters of a mile from
where the Lincoln became stuck. Spencer was arrested. The
area surrounding the Lincoln, as well as the path from the
Lincoln to where Spencer was found, were searched. Outside
the car, approximately thirty feet north, another gun, a
black hat, and a baggie of about forty-three grams of cocaine
were found in the snow. When a deputy got in the Lincoln to
assist in the towing procedure, he observed a gun on the
Spencer was charged with attempted murder. Prior to trial,
Spencer's trial counsel filed a motion in limine, seeking
to exclude the cocaine from evidence. Spencer's counsel
argued the evidence was irrelevant to the charges against
Spencer, and even if it was relevant, its prejudicial effect
outweighed any probative value. The State argued the evidence
was relevant to Spencer's specific intent and motive, and
it asserted the evidence was not overly prejudicial. The
State also argued the evidence was inextricably intertwined
with the crime charged. The district court denied the motion,
finding the evidence was admissible for the purpose of
showing Spencer's motive and intent, as related to the
specific-intent element of the offense, and the court allowed
the evidence to be admitted.
jury trial, Spencer did not deny firing the gun; the chase
and subsequent events were video-recorded by the patrol
cars' cameras and the videos entered into evidence.
Rather, Spencer's defense was that the State could not
prove beyond a reasonable doubt that his intent in firing the
gun was to kill the deputy. Spencer recognized that, based
upon his discharge of the firearm, he was guilty of some
crime of assault, but he suggested his intent in firing the
gun was merely to escape the scene, "a panicked effort
to get away."
the evidence concerning the cocaine was about to be offered
during the trial, Spencer's counsel objected, and the
district court overruled his objection. Law enforcement
officers testified about finding a baggie containing a white
powdery substance, and a laboratory criminologist testified
the substance was determined to be cocaine. The prosecutor
mentioned the cocaine in his closing argument.
jury found Spencer guilty as charged. Spencer was
subsequently sentenced to an indeterminate term of
twenty-five years. He now appeals.
appeal, Spencer asserts, through his counsel, that the
district court abused its discretion in admitting the
evidence of cocaine at his trial. He argues the evidence was
inadmissible and resulted in prejudicial error. Additionally,
in a supplemental brief, Spencer-representing himself-makes
several vague claims of error. We begin with the evidentiary
review evidentiary rulings for abuse of discretion."
State v. Huston, 825 N.W.2d 531, 536 (Iowa 2013);
see also State v. Newell, 710 N.W.2d 6, 18 (Iowa
2006) ("Rulings on the admissibility of prior-acts
evidence are reviewed for an abuse of discretion.").
"An abuse of discretion occurs when a district court
exercises its discretion on grounds or for reasons clearly
untenable or to an extent clearly unreasonable."
State v. Mulatillo, 907 N.W.2d 511, 518 (Iowa 2018).
"A ground or reason is untenable when it is not
supported by substantial evidence or when it is based on an
erroneous application of the law." State v.
Hoyman, 863 N.W.2d 1, 7 (Iowa 2015) (citation omitted).
The deferential abuse-of-discretion standard of review
recognizes that whether evidence should be admitted or
excluded is generally "a judgment call on the part of
the trial court." State v. Rodriquez, 636
N.W.2d 234, 240 (Iowa 2001); see also State v.
Caples, 857 N.W.2d 641, 645 (Iowa Ct. App. 2014).
"The defendant has the heavy burden of establishing the
trial court abused its discretion in making that judgment
call." Caples, 857 N.W.2d at 645. Moreover,
"[e]ven if a trial court has abused its discretion,
prejudice must be shown before" ...