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State v. Williams

Supreme Court of Iowa

May 24, 2019

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee,

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Floyd County, Rustin T. Davenport, Judge.

         The defendant appeals his conviction for second-degree murder, challenging the jury pool and raising several other claims of error.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Melinda J. Nye, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Louis S. Sloven and Coleman J. McAllister, Assistant Attorneys General, and Rachel A. Ginbey, County Attorney, for appellee.


         I. Introduction.

         This is the third case we decide today concerning a defendant's right to an impartial jury drawn from a fair cross section of the community. An African-American defendant was charged with first-degree murder in Floyd County, a county that is approximately 2.3% African-American in population. See Iowa Code §§ 707.1, .2(1)(a) (2017). The decedent was also African-American. The jury pool of unexcused jurors, however, contained only one African-American. The district court overruled the defendant's motion to strike the jury panel. Later, the court declined to permit defense counsel to individually voir dire the prospective jurors on a sequestered basis concerning their racial attitudes. During trial, the court also refused to admit into evidence the decedent's prior criminal record or other bad acts unless the defendant knew about them. Further, the court declined to give the defendant's proposed implicit-bias instruction, noting that it had not been previously reviewed by an Iowa court and that its subject matter was essentially covered by the latest version of an instruction promulgated by the Iowa State Bar Association. Lastly, the court did not allow the defendant to assert a "stand your ground" defense because it had not become effective until after the alleged murder had been committed. The jury found the defendant guilty of second-degree murder. See id. § 707.2.

         On appeal, we find that the district court's voir dire ruling and its decision not to give the implicit-bias instruction were within the court's discretion. We also agree with the district court that when asserting self-defense, the defendant generally may not offer proof of prior bad acts not known to the defendant as a way of proving the allegedly aggressive character of the other party. And we agree that the stand your ground defense does not apply to crimes committed before that law took effect. However, we believe further consideration of the defendant's fair-cross-section claim is warranted in light of the decisions we are filing today in State v. Lilly, __ N.W.2d__, __ (Iowa 2019), and State v. Veal, __ N.W.2d__, __ (Iowa 2019). Therefore, we conditionally affirm the defendant's conviction and sentence while remanding for further proceedings consistent with Lilly, Veal, and this opinion.

         II. Facts and Procedural History.

         Late in the day on June 30, 2017, Shaun Biehl and his ex-girlfriend Jocelyn Simmons were spending time at her apartment in the Clarkview Apartments in Charles City. Biehl and Simmons were no longer in a romantic relationship but remained friends. Their four-year-old daughter also lived in the apartment. While Biehl was there, Nate Fleming dropped in several times. Fleming was a relatively small man who weighed 146 pounds and was five feet, seven inches tall. According to Biehl, Fleming was not upset or angry when he came by. Both Biehl and Simmons were also familiar with Antoine Williams, another resident of the Clarkview Apartments. Williams was a large man who weighed approximately 300 pounds and was six feet, seven inches tall.

         Around 8:10 p.m., Biehl put his and Simmons's daughter to bed. Biehl and Simmons sat down to watch television. After watching a full episode of a show, Biehl remembers hearing two gunshots outside and running to a window that overlooked the Clarkview Apartments parking lot. Biehl saw Williams standing outside Fleming's red Chevy Equinox with his arm extended into the open driver's side door. Biehl heard two more shots and saw muzzle flashes. He then saw Williams pull Fleming's body out of the vehicle, throw him on the ground, get in the truck, and drive off.

         Biehl called 911 on his cellphone and rushed outside to try to render assistance. Others also came to the scene. Fleming was on his back, bleeding with bullet wounds in his chest area, and gasping for air. Meanwhile, Biehl spotted Williams driving back toward the group in the Equinox. Biehl told everyone to run and ran himself. Williams sped past the group in his vehicle and continued out of the complex. Fleming died at the scene.

         Simmons likewise recalled being with Biehl at the apartment the evening of June 30. Fleming came by a couple of times to see her, and he was not upset or angry, although he smelled of alcohol. Simmons also remembered hearing shots and rushing to the window after their daughter had been put to bed. The first thing she saw was Williams holding a gun and standing over Fleming's body. After that, she saw Williams get into the red Chevy Equinox and drive away. Simmons too ran outside, and observed Fleming lying on the ground bleeding and then losing consciousness. She put a pillow under his head.

         Christopher Vierkant, who was familiar with Williams, lived next door to the Clarkview Apartments. On the evening of June 30, around 8:30 or 9:00 p.m., Vierkant was outside with his children. He saw Williams walk past and said hello to him. According to Vierkant, Williams was focused on a red car that he was walking toward. Vierkant saw an African-American man in the red car with his hands on the wheel but could not see the man's face. Vierkant did not hear any talking or arguing between Williams and the man in the red car. He then saw two flashes and heard two bangs. At the time, he thought these were just fireworks. Vierkant ran back outside later after the police arrived at the apartment complex.

         After the police arrived, they found two .380 caliber shell casings on the ground at the scene. They were also later able to track down the abandoned red Equinox, but Williams had moved on to Chicago, Illinois. On July 5, Williams was arrested there. On July 7, Williams was interviewed in Chicago by a special agent with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation. When asked about the evening of June 30, Williams initially claimed that he had hung out with a group that included Fleming and then gone over to an ex-girlfriend's apartment and stayed there for the night. Williams claimed he did not learn until several days later that Fleming had been shot. Williams steadfastly denied having anything to do with Fleming's death, saying, "No, sir, that's crazy."

         Later, questioning became more pointed. Williams was asked, "Do you think that law enforcement knows that you were involved in -- in [Fleming's] death?" Williams acknowledged at that point that he had shot Fleming in the parking lot of the Clarkview Apartments. He said that he had been approaching the Chevy Equinox when Fleming "said something that triggered him." Williams said he was standing a few feet from the open window of the car when he shot Fleming. He shot "however many bullets he had in his gun." Williams also admitted he "never saw [Fleming] with a gun that night."

         Williams admitted that after he shot Fleming, he opened the car door, pulled Fleming out, and got into the vehicle and drove away. Williams said that he later broke Fleming's cellphone into pieces and threw them away. He also retrieved two shell casings from the car and discarded the gun he had used to shoot Fleming. Williams said he had purchased the gun from Ed Brown and had kept it under the sink in his apartment.

         Williams went on with this version of events. He claimed that earlier that evening of June 30, when Fleming, Williams, and others were hanging out at the apartment complex, Fleming had questioned the group whether they had something to do with a beating Fleming had recently received. Before Fleming left in his vehicle, he allegedly told others in the group, "You better not be standing here when I get back." Williams told the investigator he went to retrieve his gun after Fleming left. Williams added that he should have let the matter go. As Williams put it, "I did it, I did it, and I shouldn't have done it."

         Williams did not claim in the interview that he had acted in self-defense. To the contrary, he said, "[I]t's on me. That's on me."

         An autopsy report determined that Fleming died from multiple gunshot wounds. Fleming's body contained six gunshot wounds, which were caused by between four and six bullets. Four bullets were recovered from Fleming's body. One of the wounds had gunpowder stippling, which meant that the gun had been discharged within eighteen inches of Fleming's body. Fleming's blood alcohol concentration at the time of his death was .242.

         On July 19, a trial information was filed in the Iowa District Court for Floyd County, charging Williams with first-degree murder. See Iowa Code §§ 707.1, .2(1)(a). On August 24, Williams moved to change the venue from Floyd County. On September 11, the district court denied the motion, indicating that the majority of the media articles had been factual and that it did not believe prospective jurors would have a predisposition about the case. The court did instruct the clerk, however, to bring in an additional jury panel to ensure there would be sufficient numbers from which to select a jury. On September 18, Williams filed a notice that he intended to rely on the defense of self-defense/justification at trial. See id. § 704; Iowa R. Crim. P. 2.11(11)(c).

         Trial was scheduled to begin October 10. On October 2, Williams, who is African-American, filed a motion to challenge the jury panel. Williams's motion noted that African-Americans represent 2.3% of the Floyd County population according to the 2016 census, yet only two of the 166 potential jurors who submitted questionnaire responses for two jury pools for October through December 2017 self-identified as African-American. (One of these two had been excused.) Williams also reported tallies for the last four years:

In the calculations overall in the [last] four years, there were 1, 404 jurors, of which, 452 did not respond to the race question. Of the 952 remaining jurors, in this four-year span, only 9 members reported being African American, which would be only 0.9% of the jurors pooled from 2013 through 2017.

         On October 3, the State filed a resistance to Williams's motion. The State acknowledged that the most recent census data showed that 2.3% of the population in Floyd County was Black or African-American, but argued this figure should not be used for comparisons because the African-American population was disproportionately younger and 2.3% did not reflect the percentage actually eligible for jury service. The State also urged the data on which Williams relied were flawed because they did not account for jurors who declined to disclose their race on their questionnaire responses. The State thus insisted that Williams had not proved substantial underrepresentation or systematic exclusion under the three-part Duren/Plain standard. See Duren v. Missouri, 439 U.S. 357, 364, 99 S.Ct. 664, 668 (1979); State v. Plain, 898 N.W.2d 801, 822 (Iowa 2017).

         On October 5, the district court held a hearing on pretrial motions at which it received exhibits and heard argument on the motion to strike the jury panel. On October 6, the district court entered a written ruling denying Williams's motion to challenge the jury panel. The court found that Williams failed to show a violation of his Sixth Amendment rights under the second and third prongs of the Duren/Plain test. The court noted,

Turning to the panels available for the defendant's trial the Court required the clerk to call in two separate pools. According to Exhibit D, the last two pages, there were 103 letters sent to potential jurors in Pool 1 and 103 letters sent to potential jurors in Pool 2. Twelve letters were either undelivered or did not respond as to Pool 1. Thus there were 91 responses in Pool 1. In Pool 2 there were five that were undelivered or failed to respond. There were 98 responses in Pool 2.
In Pool [1] there are 23 potential jurors who did not identify their ethnicity. The 23 number is derived from adding the three who responded, the nine who were excused, and the ten who were disqualified, and the one who was deferred. Subtracting 23 from 91 results in 68 potential jurors who responded and self-identified their ethnicity. In Pool 2, of the 98 responses, 28 responses did not self-identify their ethnicity (six responding, 14 excused, six disqualified, and two deferred). Subtracting 28 from 98 results in 70 potential jurors who responded and self-identified their ethnicity.
Combining the two pools results in 138 individuals who responded to their summons and who self-identified their ethnicity. Exhibit D demonstrates that there is one self-identified African-American who was excused from the jury. The Court understands that the reason for the excusal is because the individual was attending college away from home. Panel 2 has one person [who] identified as African-American.
If the jury pool was proportional to the population, out of 138 jurors, there should be two to three potential jurors who are African-American. If the Court accepts the defendant's figure of 2.3 percent, then the number of expected African-American jurors in the pool should be at least three jurors.

         The district court went on to reject Williams's argument that the excused African-American juror could not be considered because "there is no showing that the method of excusing jurors is such that African-Americans are excused in greater numbers than other persons of different ethnicity or nationality." The court then found no underrepresentation because given the small numbers involved, "it is difficult to apply a rigid statistical analysis to the matter." The court also held there was no showing of systematic exclusion of African-Americans from the potential jury pool. It noted, however,

In reviewing historical numbers, the Court believes that the state court system can do more and the Court suspects that a more through statistical analysis would show that African-Americans are less likely to have motor vehicle registration or are less likely to be registered to vote. However, that showing has not been made in this case. The Court believes that additional lists could be used to increase the potential numbers of distinct minority groups. However, while believing there may be better ways to select potential jurors, this does not mean that the current method systematically excludes African-American jurors. The State attempts to use neutral, readily-available lists. Defendant's position does not address potential other reasons for the potential underrepresentation of African-Americans on the historical jury pools. There is not sufficient showing that a systematic exclusion resulted from something that the State has done.

         Trial began as scheduled on October 10. Two days earlier, Williams had moved for individualized voir dire by counsel "so that the Defendant can effectively and adequately exercise his peremptory challenges in selecting jurors." For most of the day of the 10th, the court, the prosecution, and the defense conducted voir dire, and a number of prospective jurors were excused. In the afternoon, the defense approached the court and specifically requested taking each of the thirty-four prospective jurors in the box for a private interview to talk to them about their attitudes regarding race, among other things. The State opposed the request. The district court ruled,

THE COURT: All right. I'm going to overrule that motion. One, for the reasons stated by the State. I -- We've listened to this jury, and I think most of them have expressed an opinion that they can be fair and impartial and don't have any predisposition in -- in this matter. And just from that kind of general sampling, I don't think it's going to be necessary to have an individual examination.
The second reason is just a matter of -- of timing. Five minutes each -- and I think that's generous -- times 34 is 170 minutes, which is, you know, almost three hours. And if we take some breaks here and there for the court reporter, you know, basically we'd be using a half a day for that.
We have a shot of getting the jury selected today. I don't know if that's going to happen or not. My experience is if I have 150 people having to come back overnight, we lose some of them, there might be exposure to things that we don't want to have them exposed to. It's a lot easier if I have 14 people that I have to take care of -- and keep track of.
So I don't want to spend that time in order to -- to pick a jury, given all that; and also I -- I think it's somewhat unfair to -- to the jury members that we do that without, you know, more cause shown for doing that.

         Williams's counsel proceeded to voir dire the jurors concerning racial attitudes as a group. For example, she asked, "If you're picked to be on the jury and you go back to the jury room and you hear another juror making an argument based on race, what would you do?"

         During the defense case, Williams presented witnesses who testified that Fleming had a disagreeable and boastful personality and had got into an altercation earlier that month and threatened retaliation. Witnesses also testified that Fleming was driving recklessly, had tried to slap a woman, and was making threats on June 30. Witnesses also testified to Williams's peaceful disposition.

         Additionally, Williams testified on his own behalf and gave a different version of events than he had provided after his arrest. According to Williams, earlier in the day on June 30, Fleming was driving recklessly through the Clarkview Apartments parking lot, acting aggressively, insulting people, and making threats. Williams claimed the threats included the use of firearms.

         Williams testified he obtained the gun he used to shoot Fleming from a friend, i.e., Brown, earlier on June 30 because he was fearful of Fleming. However, Brown denied at trial he had provided the gun to Williams. Brown said he had previously seen Williams with a gun.

         Williams claimed that when he approached Fleming in the Chevy Equinox on the evening of June 30, Fleming was highly agitated and had his music on loud, and Williams was trying to calm him down. According to Williams, Fleming said to him, "Man, you know what, don't even approach my m_f_ing car," and accused him of being in association with the individuals who had recently beaten up Fleming. After some exchanges back and forth, in Williams's words, "[H]e started reaching for what I thought was a gun." At this point, Williams said he pulled the gun out of his back pocket, covered his face, and fired shots at Fleming repeatedly until the gun was empty. Williams claimed he covered his face the entire time that he was shooting Fleming, although all the shots apparently hit their mark. Williams also claimed that when he pulled Fleming out of the car, "I didn't think he was really hurt . . . ."

         Even at trial, Williams admitted that he never saw a gun on Fleming's person:

Q. Did you ever see a weapon in the car? A. I -- I don't know. I didn't check for one, though. That -- That's my answer.
Q. Did you see a weapon in the car? A. I did not check for one, sir.
Q. Well, did you see Mr. Fleming with a weapon? A. You're just trying to switch this on me; but no, sir.

         On October 18, the jury returned a verdict finding Williams guilty of the lesser included offense of murder in the second degree. See Iowa Code § 707.3. On December 8, the court sentenced Williams to an indeterminate term of imprisonment of fifty years with a mandatory seventy percent minimum. See id. § 707.3(2); id. § 902.12. Williams filed a notice of appeal, and we retained the appeal.

         On appeal, Williams raises five arguments. First, he contends that he was denied his constitutional right to a jury panel drawn from a fair cross section of the community. Second, he contends the district court abused its discretion in not allowing individualized voir dire of potential jurors on race-related issues. Third, he maintains the district court erred in excluding evidence of Fleming's criminal history and prior acts of violence not known by Williams. Fourth, Williams insists that the district court erred in refusing to give his proposed jury instruction on implicit bias. Finally, Williams contends the court erred in not following the stand your ground amendment that was enacted in 2017 and became effective on July 1 of that year.

         III. Standard of Review.

         We review constitutional questions de novo. Plain, 898 N.W.2d at 810. This includes claims of systematic exclusion of a distinctive group from a jury pool in violation of the Sixth Amendment. See id.

         We review claims of voir dire error for an abuse of discretion. State v. Martin, 877 N.W.2d 859, 865 (Iowa 2016). Likewise, evidentiary rulings are reviewed for an abuse of discretion. State v. Huston, 825 N.W.2d 531, 536 (Iowa 2013). This includes rulings on the admission or exclusion of evidence regarding prior bad acts. State v. Putman, 848 N.W.2d 1, 7 (Iowa 2014). Additionally, we review the refusal to give a cautionary jury instruction for abuse of discretion. See Plain, 898 N.W.2d at 811. We have described the abuse-of-discretion standard as follows:

When assessing a district court's decision for abuse of discretion, we only reverse if the district court's decision rested on grounds or reasoning that were clearly untenable or clearly unreasonable. Grounds or reasons are untenable if they are "based on an erroneous application of the law or not supported by substantial evidence."

Id. (quoting State v. Dudley, 856 N.W.2d 668, 675 (Iowa 2014)).

         "We review rulings on questions of statutory interpretation for correction of errors at law." State v. Childs, 898 N.W.2d 177, 181 (2017) (quoting State v. Iowa Dist. Ct., 889 N.W.2d 467, 470 (Iowa 2017)).

         IV. Fair-Cross-Section Claim.

         The jury that convicted Williams had no African-Americans on it. It also appears there were no African-Americans on the October 10 panel that was seated in the courtroom and went through voir dire. Williams maintains that the jury selection process used in Floyd County violated his Sixth Amendment right to have a jury drawn from a fair cross section of the community.[1]

         As noted, the district court found that Williams had failed to meet either the second or the third Duren/Plain prong. It observed that out of 138 individuals in the combined pool, there were only two self-identified African-Americans, but it was "difficult to apply a rigid statistical analysis to the matter" in light of "the small numbers involved." It also found no showing that a particular State practice had resulted in systematic exclusion.

         In two other cases decided today, we have discussed what a defendant must prove to establish a fair-cross-section constitutional violation. See Lilly, __ N.W.2d at __; Veal, __ N.W.2d at__ . As we have explained, under the second Duren/Plain prong, the percentage of the distinctive group in the population should be determined using the most recent available census data. See Lilly, __ N.W.2d at__; Veal, __ N.W.2d at __. These data may be adjusted to account for those who are actually eligible to serve as jurors, for example, by eliminating the population that is under eighteen and the population (if any) that is incarcerated in a state prison located in the county. See Lilly, __ N.W.2d at __; Veal, __ N.W.2d at__ .

         For Sixth Amendment purposes, the defendant must then show that the percentage of the group in the jury pool is less than this expected percentage by at least two standard deviations. See Veal, __ N.W.2d at __. Pools may be aggregated, so long as pools closer in time to the trial date are not omitted when earlier pools are included. See Lilly, __ N.W.2d at__; Veal, __ N.W.2d at__ . The aggregation of pools can help solve the "small numbers" problem observed by the district court in its thoughtful ruling.

         Once underrepresentation has been shown, the defendant must then show that some practice or practices caused the underrepresentation-i.e. the third Duren/Plain prong. See Lilly, __ N.W.2d at__; Veal, __ N.W.2d at __. As we have explained in Veal, for Sixth Amendment purposes, the practice must be something more than an item on the Berghuis v. Smith "laundry list." Veal, __ N.W.2d at__ (quoting Berghuis, 559 U.S. 314, 332, 130 S.Ct. 1382, 1395 (2010)).

         To illustrate how this analysis might work, in this case one African-American juror was excused from even coming to the courthouse on October 10 because she was in college. Williams argues that she and other preexcused jurors should not be counted in determining the percentage of the distinctive group in the jury pool, making the ratio 1/130 rather than 2/138. The State and the district court viewed the matter otherwise. As the State reasons, there is no reason to omit persons who received a juror summons from the statistics, "especially in the absence of any allegation that hardship excusals are granted in patterns that contribute to underrepresentation or exclusion."

         There is a potential problem with the State and the district court's position, at least under article I, section 10 of the Iowa Constitution. A policy or practice relating to excusing jurors might amount to systematic exclusion. See Lilly, __ N.W.2d at __. If a defendant wishes to try to prove that it does, the defendant should not be foreclosed from doing so by a rigid rule that calculates the pool based on who was summoned, rather than who actually appeared.[2]

          In this case, the district court prepared a careful ruling based on the caselaw as it existed at the time of trial. But it did not have the benefit of today's decisions. As in Lilly and Veal, we believe the appropriate course of action is to remand to give Williams a further opportunity to develop his Sixth Amendment fair-cross-section ...

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