State v. Davis

Citation975 N.W.2d 1
Decision Date27 May 2022
Docket Number19-0453
Parties STATE of Iowa, Appellee, v. Ethan Landon DAVIS, Appellant.
CourtIowa Supreme Court

Martha J. Lucey, State Appellate Defender, and Vidhya K. Reddy (argued), Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Louis S. Sloven (argued) and Scott D. Brown, Assistant Attorneys General, for appellee.

Christensen, C.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Waterman, Mansfield, McDonald, Oxley, and McDermott, JJ., joined. Appel, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

CHRISTENSEN, Chief Justice.

On further review from the court of appeals, we decide to address two jury instructions provided by the district court after evidence was presented in a murder trial. First, we decide whether a jury instruction that explains reasonable doubt in terms of "hesitate to act" should have been added to a jury instruction that already contained an explanation of reasonable doubt in terms of "firmly convinced." Second, we decide whether a verdict-urging instruction improperly coerced the jury verdict.

The "hesitate to act" formulation of reasonable doubt is a legally adequate instruction on reasonable doubt. However, we determine the inclusion of "hesitate to act" language was not legally required because it would not have amplified the concept of reasonable doubt already present in the trial court's "firmly convinced" instruction. Therefore, the district court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to add the discretionary "hesitate to act" instruction.

The verdict-urging instruction lacked content that we have previously disapproved of in past caselaw. The timing of the verdict from the verdict-urging instruction indicates that the jury adequately considered the case. Each member of the jury was polled and indicated that guilty was indeed their verdict. Therefore, the content and circumstances indicate that the jury was not improperly coerced by the court's verdict-urging instruction.

I. Facts and Procedural Background.

The defendant, Ethan Davis, lived with his parents and brother on a 400-acre family farm near the Wayne-Appanoose county line in Promise City in 2017. Davis was the parent of a one-and-a-half-year-old son with his ex-girlfriend. Davis thought their son would be with him starting on Thanksgiving Day 2017 through the weekend, but he learned the day before that his ex-girlfriend did not agree to such an arrangement. On Thanksgiving Day, Davis drove around Moravia, Centerville, and Promise City before visiting his friend Joseph Babbitt that evening in Plano. Babbitt described Davis as upset because of a recent breakup, losing his job, and the situation with his child. Davis returned to his parents’ home at about midnight.

The next day (Friday), Davis left his parents’ place to buy cigarettes at a Casey's in Seymour. As Davis left the Casey's, he noticed his ex-girlfriend's car outside the house of her new boyfriend, Jarvis Kennebeck. Davis entered Kennebeck's home, "fired a round into the air" from the 9 mm gun he generally carried, and took his son and left. The ex-girlfriend called 911 to report the incident at 11:42 a.m.

With his child in tow, Davis headed back to the family farm, taking gravel roads to avoid law enforcement in case police were looking to arrest him for what he had done at Kennebeck's home. Davis tried dropping off his son at his parents’ home, but no one was there. He also traveled to find other friends and family, but no one was home.

Eventually, Davis ended up at the house of Babbitt, who was home. According to Babbitt, Davis drove erratically into Babbitt's backyard. This was not normal behavior. It was clear to Babbitt that Davis was "pretty upset" when he arrived. Specifically, Babbitt noticed Davis was fast-talking and had been crying. Davis left his sleeping child on Babbitt's living room floor and scribbled down his mother's phone number for Babbitt. Davis then quickly fled the house at about 1:05 p.m. and Babbitt called Davis's mother. This was the last time anyone claimed to have seen Davis until approximately 5:00 p.m. the next day (Saturday).

Not too far away, Curtis Ross began his Thanksgiving weekend. Davis and Ross had never met before. Ross was an avid hunter from northwest Iowa who traveled to Lucas to bow-hunt deer in Appanoose and Wayne counties. He spent Thanksgiving night with a friend, William Tyler Jensen, at Jensen's home in Lucas. Ross and Jensen had been hunting friends for five or six years. The two regularly communicated with each other through calls, texts, and Snapchat.1

In the early morning hours on the day after Thanksgiving (Friday), the two friends separately left Jensen's home to hunt in different areas. Jensen was the first to return home to take a nap after his early morning hunt at around 10:00 a.m. Soon after, Ross returned as well. The two discussed how Ross planned to go hunting that afternoon at a place he fondly referred to as "Narnia," a public hunting ground located near the border of Appanoose and Wayne counties. Jensen saw Ross leave his house around noon. This was the last time Jensen saw Ross alive.

Ross sent a Snap to several individuals on Friday at 1:26 p.m. This Snap was a picture of his hunting gear with a text that said, "It's going to be a long walk outta here." This was the last Snap communication sent by Ross. Donna Westphal, another one of Ross's friends, sent Ross a Snap shortly afterward. This Snap was opened at 1:38 p.m. But starting at 1:59 p.m., Snaps sent to Ross's Snapchat account were not opened. The last cell phone ping2 to Ross's phone was at 3:31 p.m. In between this time period, around 2:30 p.m., Kenneth Brown was washing his work truck near the same public hunting ground where Ross was supposedly hunting when he heard several ringing, rapid-fire gunshots. The shots persisted for several rounds and sounded so close that Brown took cover.

Jensen attempted to communicate to Ross through text message around 3:30 p.m. and Snapchat around 3:50 p.m. Ross did not respond. Jensen attempted to make contact with Ross again at 11:30 p.m. when he had not returned to the house. Jensen again received no response and he began to worry. He checked for Ross at a local bar that Ross had been to when in the area, but Ross was not there.

Jensen's search for his friend continued into the early Saturday morning hours. At about 1:00 a.m., he arrived at the entrance to the public hunting ground where Ross told Jensen he would be hunting. Jensen spotted Ross's vehicle at the end of a road where it abuts into a lake, but Ross was nowhere to be seen. Jensen shouted Ross's name into the woods but heard nothing in response.

At this point, Jensen called the Appanoose County Sheriff's Office to report Ross as missing, and a law-enforcement-led search soon began. Jensen and law enforcement officers attempted to search the public hunting area for a couple of hours, which proved to be difficult because it was dark and densely wooded. At 8:00 a.m., Wayne County Sheriff Officer Cody Jellison was shielding his eyes from the sun when something caught his eye in a nearby creek. Upon closer observation, the eerie sight appeared to be a naked human body, obviously deceased, submerged in the middle of the creek. The body was later confirmed to be Ross.

Upon removing Ross's body from the water, it was clear that his body had been mutilated. The medical examiner who performed the autopsy testified that Ross had been shot at least ten times, had five sweeping incise wounds, and twenty-six plunging stab wounds. Stippling, an indicator of being shot at close range, was noticed, burned into the left side of Ross's face. Many of his stab wounds were four to six inches deep. There were four extensive incise wounds carved into his legs, one on each thigh and one on each calf. Vital organs were damaged such as the liver, kidneys, diaphragm, lungs, and intestines. One particularly serious stab severed his carotid artery and another incise wound severed

his femoral artery. Some of the injuries were determined to have occurred before death, some at the time of death, and some after death. It was unclear which specific wound was the fatal shot, stab or incise. However, it was clearly evident that several of the shots or cuts would have been fatal on their own.

A massive evidence collection effort began at the creek with the collaboration of law enforcement from the Appanoose and Wayne county sheriff departments, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI). Officers canvassed the surrounding area after locating Ross's body. They observed small areas of blood in the water near the body. Hanging onto a rope, officers lined up side by side and slowly walked the creek in an effort to gather any evidence floating or submerged in the creek. The areas surrounding the creek were photographed and processed for evidence.

Although neither Ross's clothes nor any other personally identifiable evidence was ever found during the search, other evidence was gathered. The officers found several 5.56 mm and .223 mm shell casings located in two areas near the murder—one casing near a grassy bloody area determined to contain Ross's blood and four casings located on a hilltop overseeing the grassy bloody area and the creek. While standing on that same hilltop where the shell casings were found, law enforcement noted that there was a line of sight to where Ross's body was found as well as where the other shell casings were found in the grass.

Nearby the crime scene, officers discovered an ammunition can stashed in a rusty old refrigerator and multiple gun magazines, some loaded with ammunition, concealed inside a culvert. The ammunition can contained loose ammunition including 5.56 and .223 ammunition. The gun magazines contained .223 rounds with green polymer tips. According to the officers, 5.56 and .223 ammunition are the type of ammunition...

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2 cases
  • State v. Church, 22-0089
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Iowa
    • February 8, 2023
    ...Allen charge. We review the district court's decision to give a verdict-urging instruction for an abuse of discretion.[5] State v. Davis, 975 N.W.2d 1, 8 (Iowa 2022). Indeed, district courts possess wide latitude to deliver a verdict-urging instruction in the face of jury deadlock. State v.......
  • State v. Church, 22-0089
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Iowa
    • February 8, 2023
    ...Allen charge. We review the district court's decision to give a verdict-urging instruction for an abuse of discretion.[5] State v. Davis, 975 N.W.2d 1, 8 (Iowa 2022). Indeed, district courts possess wide latitude to deliver a verdict-urging instruction in the face of jury deadlock. State v.......

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