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Spellman v. State

Court of Appeals of Iowa

September 11, 2019

ATIBA SPELLMAN, Applicant-Appellant,
v.
STATE OF IOWA, Respondent-Appellee.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Story County, Timothy J. Finn, Judge.

         An applicant for postconviction relief appeals the order dismissing the action as a discovery sanction.

          Christopher A. Clausen of Clausen Law Office, Ames, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Kyle Hanson, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee State.

          Considered by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Doyle and Bower, JJ.

          Doyle, Judge.

         Atiba Spellman appeals the dismissal of his postconviction-relief (PCR) action. He contends the district court abused its discretion in dismissing the action as a discovery sanction. Because we find the sanction of dismissal was an abuse of discretion[1] under the facts before us, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         The State charged Spellman with two counts of first-degree murder in December 2008. Following trial, a jury found Spellman guilty as charged. Spellman appealed his convictions, which this court affirmed. See State v. Spellman, No. 13-1670, 2015 WL 799538, at *1 (Iowa Ct. App. Feb. 25, 2015).

         In December 2015, Spellman filed a PCR application without the aid of counsel. In it, he made several general allegations. To sum up, he alleged his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to investigate his case adequately or hire expert witnesses; the evidence and testimony against him was false or tainted; and "denial of right to a fair trial." The PCR court appointed counsel to represent Spellman. For various reasons, four attorneys sequentially represented Spellman in the PCR proceedings.[2]

         In August 2016, the State sent Spellman interrogatories and requests for production of documents. Spellman failed to respond. In January 2018, with the PCR trial only weeks away, the State moved the court to compel Spellman's response and to continue the trial. The PCR court granted the State's motions and ordered Spellman to respond to discovery by March 1.[3]

         Spellman submitted his discovery responses on February 27. He stated he had no documents in his possession to support his claims but would supplement his answers when his claims were "better defined through discovery."

         On March 19, the State moved for discovery sanctions, asking the court to dismiss the PCR action. It argued that the PCR claims were too broad and vague and Spellman "refused to define these issues by providing overly broad and vague answers to Interrogatories."

         Spellman moved to amend his PCR application on March 24. The stated purpose of the amendment was "to clarify and narrow the issues to be presented at the trial in this matter." The amended application alleged that Spellman's trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to: (1) hire a forensic expert to review the physical evidence and show that Spellman did not create certain footprints found at the crime scene, (2) investigate the victim's injuries and hire a forensic pathologist to refute the cause of the head injuries, (3) cross-examine witnesses about the victim's injuries ...


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