State v. Christensen, 17-0085

Citation929 N.W.2d 646
Decision Date07 June 2019
Docket NumberNo. 17-0085,17-0085
Parties STATE of Iowa, Appellee, v. Lee Samuel CHRISTENSEN, Appellant.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa

Leon F. Spies of Spies, Pavelich & Foley, Iowa City, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Tyler J. Buller, Kelli Huser (until withdrawal), Kevin Cmelik, and Coleman McAllister, Assistant Attorneys General, and Doug Hansen, County Attorney, for appellee.

APPEL, Justice.

In this case, Lee Christensen challenges his conviction of second-degree murder following a jury trial. After the trial, Christensen moved for a new trial based upon (1) the refusal of the trial court to disqualify a juror who allegedly made out-of-court statements regarding the defendant’s guilt, (2) prosecutorial misconduct related to allegedly improper testimony from two witnesses for the State, and (3) misconduct and bias related to extraneous information reaching the jury about a possible riot if a certain verdict was not returned. The district court denied the motions for a new trial, entered judgment, and sentenced Christensen. Christensen appealed.

We transferred the case to the court of appeals. The court of appeals reversed, holding Christensen was entitled to a new trial as a result of juror misconduct and bias. For the reasons expressed below, we vacate the court of appeals decision and affirm the district court judgment.

I. Factual and Procedural Background.

A. Introduction. Thomas Bortvit was dating Christensen’s former girlfriend. Bortvit and Christensen both lived in Estherville, Iowa. After Bortvit was reported missing from work, a community search was undertaken in an effort to find him. As part of its investigation, law enforcement wanted to speak with Christensen. After law enforcement contacted the Christensen family about a potential interview, Christensen’s mother asked him if he knew Bortvit’s whereabouts, became suspicious, and confronted her son. Christensen ultimately told his father that he had killed Bortvit. Christensen provided his father with information that led to the discovery of Bortvit’s body in a remote location.

The State charged Christensen, an Estherville high school student, with murder and other lesser included offenses. He pled not guilty. The matter proceeded to jury trial in Estherville. The jury found him guilty of second-degree murder.

Christensen filed a posttrial motion attacking the verdict. He claimed the district court erred in refusing to grant a midtrial motion to disqualify a juror for cause. He further asserted the verdict was tainted because of juror misconduct. He also claimed prosecutorial misconduct associated with two witnesses' testimony required a new trial. The district court overruled the motion for a new trial, entered judgment, and sentenced Christensen. Christensen appealed.

B. Selection of the Jury. Before the jury trial began, the parties engaged in voir dire of the jury venire. The district court began by asking the jurors three questions: (1) whether they had heard about the case from the media, (2) whether they had heard about the case from sources besides the media, and (3) whether they had formed an opinion about the case. Many jurors answered affirmatively to one or more of the questions.

Counsel for the parties then conducted individual voir dire outside the presence of the other venire members. The voir dire process revealed that the events surrounding Bortvit’s death were the subject of extensive discussion in the Estherville community. Many prospective jurors knew members of the Christensen family, the Bortvit family, or both. In addition, many prospective jurors further explained their knowledge about the case from the media and from other sources, including various Facebook postings.

A number of jurors believed they could not fairly judge the case because they had already formed opinions about the matter. Most often, these jurors believed Christensen was guilty. When asked if they could be fair in the proceedings, a number said they could not. Of the sixty prospective jurors, the district court disqualified twenty-four for cause.

During voir dire, the lawyers and prospective jurors recognized the emotional character of the case. One prospective juror stated, "I know that sentiments run high." Another remarked, "[I]t is so traumatic that this has happened. And whether or not he is guilty, everybody involved has been hurt ...." A third potential juror stopped going out for coffee because "[it was] too disturbing to [the juror] to listen to other people ... disparagingly talk about individuals." A fourth potential juror when asked whether they were well suited to be a juror explained, "I just think I'm going to need a tissue a lot."

During voir dire of the entire panel, Christensen’s attorney asked the jury if anyone had "difficulty with the notion that Lee Christensen doesn't have to prove his innocence, doesn't have to testify, that you can't hold it against him." No one responded in the affirmative.

At the close of jury selection, the district court described how the trial would proceed. The district court stated that after the close of the State’s case, Christensen could present evidence "if he chooses to." The district court advised the jury, "[Christensen is] not required to [present evidence]. As you've been told, he’s presumed innocent and the burden rests with the state."

C. Instructions of the District Court Related to Extraneous Communications. After the petit jury had been selected, the district court admonished the jury to avoid extraneous communication with anyone regarding the trial. Specifically, the district court instructed the jury,

[Y]ou are not to converse among yourselves or with anyone else on any subject connected with this case.... If anyone should attempt to discuss this case with you or in your presence, walk away and do not listen. However, if anyone should persist in talking to you or in your presence, report it immediately ....

Further, the district court told the jury,

[Y]ou are admonished not to listen to, view, or read any form of media while this case is in progress.... This includes ... the full gamut of social media, the internet, cell phone communications, Instagram, Twitter. Just for the next few days, I need to have you disconnect from that if you're involved at all.

D. Overview of Evidence Adduced at Christensen’s Trial. On June 6, 2015, Bortvit was working in the meat department at a Fareway store in Estherville. That afternoon Christensen was seen at the Fareway meat counter. His truck was also spotted in the Fareway parking lot. Although his family was not going to be home that evening, Christensen bought some ground beef, which he put in the freezer when he returned home. Bortvit left the Fareway store for his break at about 4:00 p.m.

Bortvit’s girlfriend, Cayley Fehr, was out of town but exchanged text messages with Bortvit during the afternoon. Bortvit told Fehr in a text message that he was with Christensen and that Christensen had asked for a ride because his truck had broken down. Fehr had dated Christensen in the past and knew of the antipathy Bortvit had toward Christensen. Later in the day, Fehr received a text message from Bortvit’s phone stating that he no longer wanted to date or see Fehr and that they should see other people. Fehr subsequently received a text message from Christensen stating he had killed Bortvit.

Christensen arrived home at approximately 5:00 or 5:30 p.m. wearing a soiled T-shirt and jeans. He and his sister went downtown for a sandwich. Upon returning home, Christensen watched TV but then abruptly went upstairs.

Late that evening, Bortvit’s friends discovered his car parked and locked in a residential area of Estherville. Police and community members began to look for Bortvit.

The next day, Christensen and his mother were driving to Sioux Falls to catch a flight to Arizona so that Christensen could attend a cross-country sports camp. She learned on Facebook that Bortvit was missing. When she told Christensen of the news, he sat quietly. That same day, Christensen’s father participated in the search for Bortvit.

After law enforcement learned that Bortvit had been seen talking to Christensen at Fareway, they went to Christensen’s home and told his sister they wanted to talk to him. When Christensen and his mother arrived in Arizona, his mother received a text message indicating the police wanted to talk to her son. After a confrontation, Christensen told his mother that he and Bortvit had gotten into a fight, that he got scared, and that he hit Bortvit with a rock. Thereafter, Christensen called his father and told him that he knew where Bortvit’s body was. Christensen’s father told police that Christensen had killed Bortvit. Using directions from Christensen, police drove to a place outside of town where Bortvit’s body was located in a pasture.

A search warrant executed at the Christensen home produced a .45 caliber pistol, ammunition, clothing, and Bortvit’s wallet in Christensen’s room. In addition, investigators found bloodstained boots in the lower level of the residence. A search of Christensen’s grandfather’s farm produced three .45 caliber cartridge cases and three slugs. The trunk of Bortvit’s car contained clothing and other items covered with blood.

An autopsy revealed that Bortvit died from multiple gunshots and that his body exhibited bruising and abrasions. A projectile retrieved from Bortvit’s body was traced to the .45 caliber pistol found in Christensen’s room. Testing of the pistol revealed Bortvit’s, but not Christensen’s, DNA on the grip of the gun. Examiners did not test the gun for blood or other biological sources of DNA.

The jury received the case on June 30, 2016, and deliberated into the evening without reaching a verdict. The jury returned to deliberate on July 1. That morning, the jurors delivered a note to the district court indicating they were "stuck between two verdicts and need[ed] to know what [their] options [w...

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    ...have followed cases like Mattox and Parker and closely scrutinized certain jury contacts with outsiders. See, e.g. , State v. Christensen , 929 N.W.2d 646, 661 (Iowa 2019) ("The constitutional right to an impartial jury may be impaired by jury misconduct and jury bias."); Oswald v. Bertrand......
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1 books & journal articles
    • United States
    • Case Western Reserve Law Review Vol. 72 No. 2, December 2021
    • December 22, 2021 extraneous information); Finch v. State, 2018 Ark. Ill, at 7-8 & n.4, 542 S.W.3d 143, 147 & n.4 (same); State v. Christensen, 929 N.W.2d 646, 661 (Iowa 2019) ("Juror misconduct often involves communication by a juror with others about the case outside the jury room, independently......

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