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State v. Roberts

Court of Appeals of Iowa

May 1, 2019

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
ABRAHAM ROBERTS, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Scott D. Rosenberg, Judge.

         A defendant appeals his conviction for murder in the first degree.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, (until withdrawal) and Robert P. Ranschau, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Timothy M. Hau, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Considered by Potterfield, P.J., and Tabor and Bower, JJ.

          Tabor, Judge.

         A Polk County jury found Abraham Roberts guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting death of his live-in girlfriend, Agnes Yarlee. On appeal, Roberts challenges the State's proof he acted with malice aforethought and that the shooting was willful, premeditated, and carried out with a specific intent to kill. Because the State presented ample evidence supporting these elements, we affirm the jury's verdict.

         I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

         The jury heard testimony Roberts shot Yarlee five times as she sat on the couch in the apartment they shared with their infant daughter, Yarlee's three older children, and other family members. Their five-month-old was sitting in a bouncy chair at her mother's feet when Roberts repeatedly fired the nine-millimeter Smith & Wesson handgun. No bullets hit the baby, but they struck Yarlee in the knee, chest, and skull. The head wound was fatal.

         Before the shooting, Roberts complained the apartment was a mess. Yarlee purportedly responded, "my kids ain't here to clean the house." Then Roberts, Yarlee, and Yarlee's seventy-nine-year-old mother argued so loudly Yarlee's three children could hear their raised voices outside the apartment building. During the argument, Roberts shoved the elderly woman to the ground as he moved to the bedroom to grab his gun. Scared to go inside, eleven-year-old C.Y. recalled standing at the open apartment door with her eight- and nine-year-old brothers behind her. C.Y. saw Roberts tap his leg before he lifted the gun and shot her mother. C.Y. told the jury her mother didn't have time to react: "He didn't give her a chance. He just went boom, boom, boom, boom, boom." C.Y. then ushered her grandmother from the house and called 911.

         Roberts left the apartment before the police arrived. Responding officers discovered Yarlee's body on the couch in a large pool of blood. After searching the apartment the next day, officers found the handgun under dirty clothes in the laundry hamper. Authorities eventually arrested Roberts in International Falls, Minnesota, near the Canadian border.

         The State charged Roberts with murder in the first degree, in violation of Iowa Code sections 707.1 and 707.2(1) (2017). A jury heard the case in January 2018. Yarlee's mother and daughter both offered eyewitness testimony. They testified Roberts was angry, and the grandmother remembered Roberts telling Yarlee, "I will kill you," before he pulled the trigger.

         After the State's case in chief, defense counsel moved for judgment of acquittal on the charges of murder in the first and second degree and asked the district court to submit the case to the jury only on the lesser-included offenses of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. The court overruled the motion.

         Roberts took the stand in his own defense. He testified to drinking more than half a bottle of gin the day of the shooting. He acknowledged arguing with Yarlee at the apartment but alleged she was the aggressor, they wrestled over the gun, and "it automatically went off."[1] According to his testimony, after the first shot, he didn't remember anything until the next morning.[2] He told the jury after waking up at a hotel, he ...


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