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State v. Purk

Court of Appeals of Iowa

November 6, 2019

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
TAIT OTIS PURK, Defendant-Appellant. v.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Tama County, Ian K. Thornhill, Judge.

         Defendant appeals his conviction and sentence for second-degree murder.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, (until withdrawal) and Bradley M. Bender, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Louis S. Sloven, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Jesse Linebaugh, Mitch G. Nass (until withdrawal), Daryna Ternavska, and Monika Sehic of Faegre Baker Daniels, LLP, Des Moines, for amicus curiae Innocence Project of Iowa.

          Heard by Bower, C.J., and May and Greer, JJ.

          MAY, Judge.

         Following a bench trial, the district court found Tait Purk guilty of second-degree murder. On appeal, he argues (1) prior-bad-acts evidence was improperly admitted, (2) his counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the introduction of polygraph evidence, and (3) the guilty verdict was not supported by sufficient evidence or was contrary to the weight of the evidence. Purk also raises various ineffective-assistance claims as well as a Confrontation Clause claim in a pro se brief. We affirm his conviction and sentence. And we preserve all but one ineffective-assistance claim for future postconviction proceedings.

         I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

         The district court could have reasonably found these facts to be true. In 2000, Purk lived with his fiancé, Cora Okonski, and her young son. Prior to April 16, 2000, Purk physically abused Okonski. He even choked her to unconsciousness.

         On April 16, Okonski went to her neighbor, Ricky Jo Sanchez, [1] and stated she and Purk had been fighting. Okonski told Sanchez that Purk was angry and she was afraid Purk would kill her. Okonski asked Sanchez to watch her house and alert police if it appeared Purk was harming her. Then Okonski returned home-to Purk.

         Okonski has not been seen or heard from since April 16, 2000.[2] She has not contacted her parents. She has neither contacted her son nor made arrangements for his care. Although she receives monthly social security disability benefits, Okonski has not picked up a check since April 2000.

         Evidence suggests Okonski disappeared because Purk killed her. Purk told a friend, Chadwick Rogers, that "he had to kill his former girlfriend because she was going to turn him in about a stolen truck and a burglary." Purk was even more specific in his confession to Sean Ward, a fellow prisoner during 2004 and 2005. When talking with Ward, Purk referred to Okonski by her first name, Cora. Purk told Ward about "one occasion that they were fighting, and during the fight he ran across the room and grabbed her by the throat and slammed her on the floor and killed her." Purk told Ward he did this because "[s]he threatened to call the police on him."

         In December 2016, a grand jury indicted Purk for first-degree murder. Following a jury trial, Purk was found guilty of first-degree murder. But the district court granted Purk's motion for new trial. Purk then waived his right to a jury trial and requested a bench trial. The district court found Purk guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced him accordingly. He now appeals.

         II. Standard of Review

         Different standards of review apply to different issues raised in Purk's appeal. First, our review of the admission of prior-bad-acts evidence is for abuse of discretion. State v. Putnam, 848 N.W.2d 1, 8 (Iowa 2014).

         Next, "[a] claim of ineffective assistance of counsel requires a de novo review because the claim is derived from the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution." Bowman v. State, 710 N.W.2d 200, 203 (Iowa 2006).

         "We review sufficiency-of-the-evidence claims for correction of errors at law." State v. Quinn, 691 N.W.2d 403, 407 (Iowa 2005). "We will uphold a finding of guilt if 'substantial evidence' supports the verdict. 'Substantial evidence' is that upon which a rational trier of fact could find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. . . . [W]e view the evidence in the light most favorable to the State." State v. Pace, 602 N.W.2d 764, 768 (Iowa 1999) (citations omitted).

         Finally, "[t]rial courts have wide discretion in deciding motions for new trial." State v. Ellis, 578 N.W.2d 655, 659 (Iowa 1998).

         III. Admission of Prior-Bad-Acts Evidence

         Purk contends the district court abused its discretion in admitting testimony from Josh York and Tarah Bear regarding his prior bad acts to establish motive to kill Okonski. York testified to witnessing Purk choke Okonski into unconsciousness during a fight. Bear testified Purk once told her about choking Okonski during a fight until she was unconscious. York and Bear's testimony was admitted over Purk's objections. So error was preserved.[3]

         Normally, "[e]vidence of a crime, wrong, or other act is not admissible to prove a person's character in order to prove a person's character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character." Iowa R. Evid. 5.404(b)(1). However, such evidence "may be admissible for another purpose such as proving motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident." Iowa R. Evid. 5.404(b)(2).

         We use a three-step analysis to evaluate the admission of evidence of prior bad acts. First, we must determine if the evidence is relevant to a legitimate factual issue. State v. Putman, 848 N.W.2d 1, 9 (Iowa 2014). If the evidence is relevant, we then consider if there is "clear proof the individual against whom the evidence is offered committed the bad act or crime." State v. Sullivan, 679 N.W.2d 19, 25 (Iowa 2004). If these elements are satisfied, we must consider whether the evidence's "probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice to the defendant." Id.

         Purk's appeal rests on the second element of the analysis-the clear-proof standard. To meet this standard, the bad act does not need to be established beyond a reasonable doubt, nor does it need to be corroborated. State v. Taylor, 689 N.W.2d 116, 130 (Iowa 2004). There must simply be proof that prevents the factfinder from speculating or drawing inferences based on mere suspicion. State v. Spargo, 364 N.W.2d 203, 209 (Iowa 1985). Testimony from a credible witness satisfies the requirement. Putman, 848 N.W.2d at 9.

         We start with York's testimony. Purk claims the district court did not determine York was credible. Yet the district court's ruling specifically affirms York's credibility. The district court found he "credibly testified" that "[he] witnessed [Purk] choke Ms. Okonski until she passed out."

         Even so, Purk contends York is discredited by the lack of specifics in his testimony. Purk highlights York's inability to specify the exact date the alleged choking occurred. But that does not automatically disqualify York's testimony. The question is whether shortcomings in a witness's testimony require the factfinder to speculate about the actual occurrence of the event described. See State v. Moon, No. 00-1128, 2002 WL 663486, at *4 (Iowa Ct. App. Apr. 24, 2002) ("The evidence establishes how, when and where . . . and thereby completes the story of the crime."). In our view, that is not the case with York's testimony. Although he was unclear about dates, he was clear about seeing Purk choke Okonski.

         Purk also contends testimony from his nephew, Jeremy Purk, discredits York's testimony. York referenced a certain truck that Jeremy allegedly drove at the time. But Jeremy claimed he did not purchase the truck until two years later. Jeremy also testified he was not with York during the alleged choking incident and he had never seen Purk attack Okonski. These are simply conflicting pieces of evidence. The district court, as the factfinder, was well positioned to "resolve those conflicts in accordance with its own views as to the credibility of the witnesses." State v. Hopkins, 576 N.W.2d 374, 377 (Iowa 1998).

         We turn next to Bear's testimony. Although Purk concedes the district court found Bear credible, he disagrees with that finding. Bear did not immediately report the incident Purk described to her. Initially, she thought Purk was joking. It was not until federal investigators confronted her about Okonski's disappearance that she took Purk seriously and relayed what Purk told her. But this delay does not disqualify the testimony under the clear-proof standard. Clear proof is meant to be a safeguard against speculation on the part of the factfinder. Spargo, 364 N.W.2d at 209. Bear's ...

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