State v. Hunziker, 20-0086

CourtCourt of Appeals of Iowa
Writing for the CourtGREER, JUDGE.
Decision Date12 January 2022
PartiesSTATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. HILLARY LEE HUNZIKER, Defendant-Appellant.
Docket Number20-0086

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.

HILLARY LEE HUNZIKER, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 20-0086

Court of Appeals of Iowa

January 12, 2022


Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Buchanan County, Andrea Dryer, Judge.

Hillary Hunziker appeals her conviction for murder in the first degree.

Martha J. Lucey, State Appellate Defender, and Bradley M. Bender, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

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

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

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GREER, JUDGE.

Hillary Hunziker appeals her jury conviction of first-degree murder. She asserts that (1) the district court erred in denying her request for a continuance based on the unavailability of her expert witness, (2) the jury instructions about the insanity defense did not correctly state the law, (3) her conviction is contrary to the weight of the evidence, (4) the district court erred in denying two requests for substitute counsel, and (5) she should be able to assert an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim on this direct appeal to pursue an unpreserved sufficiency-of-the-evidence claim, or in the alternative, we should evaluate her issue under plain-error review.

I. Facts and Background Proceedings.

In November 2017, Hunziker; her mother, Brenda Milnes; and her young son, J.H., traveled to Minnesota for a family gathering with Hunziker's brother, Brook Milnes.[1] On the trip, she had periods of being emotional, tearful, and quiet. Hunziker and her mother dropped J.H. off with Hunziker's ex-husband, Jason, [2]who had physical care of the child. Hunziker was unhappy with this arrangement and had made several allegations about child abuse regarding both J.H. and Jason's adult son. None of the allegations were found to be credible or substantiated, and all followed moments of turmoil in the relationship. The first allegation came a few months after their divorce decree was finalized and Jason was awarded physical care. The second occurred after Jason told Hunziker that

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he was no longer interested in any relationship with her. And the third was voiced after Hunziker entered and refused to leave Jason's home, requiring law enforcement to remove her.

On the ride home, Hunziker told Milnes that Jason had raped her in front of both of his sons. Neither son had mentioned this to Milnes and, at trial, Jason's adult son denied seeing or experiencing any abuse. Given Hunziker's history of false allegations and her own impressions of Jason and his sons, Milnes did not find Hunziker's allegations credible. Still, by the time Milnes dropped Hunziker off at home, she was worried about her daughter's mental stability. She offered to take Hunziker to the hospital or have her daughter come stay with her. Hunziker instead asked Milnes to take J.H. up to Minnesota to live with Brook if anything were to happen to both Hunziker and Jason. Still concerned, Milnes told her daughter to go to bed and then went home.

Hunziker did not go to bed. Instead, she went to Walmart and bought two flashlights, two knives, and razor blades. She released her dogs and cat so someone else could find them and take care of them. She put a sleeping bag in the backseat of her car as a makeshift bed. She filled her tank with gas. She put on boots she believed would be quiet. Then, around 4:00 a.m., she entered Jason's home, avoided squeaky floorboards, and packed a bag with toys for J.H. With a knife held in her right hand, she found Jason sitting in his bed. The two exchanged words, and she stabbed him. Jason called out to J.H., and Hunziker yelled for him to stay in his room. However, the child did not-instead, he called

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911[3] and told them his mom had stabbed his dad. Hunziker stabbed Jason twenty times, pulling down his underwear to keep him from running. She then corralled J.H., who was screaming and crying, into the car. Jason was also able to call 911 on his cell phone and reported that his ex-wife had stabbed him and taken his child and that he was dying. By the time help arrived, he had lost too much blood from major arteries that were severed. Jason died soon after.

After fleeing the scene, Hunziker called Milnes and threatened to drive through the garage door if Milnes did not open it for her. She said something like "artery, artery," and Milnes replied, "Hillary, what have you done?" Milnes then called the police.

Officer Patrick Kremer arrived at Milnes's home just as Hunziker did. Hunziker was covered in blood and had what her mother described as a "wild" look. When Officer Kremer saw Hunziker coated in blood, he asked her what was going on. She responded that she was dressed for Halloween. Officer Kremer asked for Hunziker's name. Instead, she told him that she was going to tell him the truth: her son had been living with his father, who was a child molester, and so she killed him. Officer Kremer saw J.H. standing next to her without a shirt, also speckled with blood. Hunziker told the officer that J.H. did not like to talk about it; J.H. whimpered and said he loved his father. Hunziker was calm and responsive, confirming again that she had killed Jason. Officer Kremer handcuffed Hunziker and asked Milnes to take J.H. inside.

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Officer Kremer found a knife in Hunziker's front right pocket and its sheath hung around her neck. The flashlights, razor blades, and other knife were found in her car. Officer Kremer also noticed that her hands were cut. Hunziker told him that she wanted her son to go live with her brother in Minnesota. As Officer Kremer took her to the squad car, she told him, "It's a crazy world out there," and then, "You gotta do what you gotta do." He placed her in the squad car, read her Miranda rights, and called for an ambulance. When Officer Kremer asked if Hunziker wanted to talk about the incident, she responded, "Not right now."

At this point, Officer Mark Keeney arrived at the scene. It was decided that he would ride in the ambulance with Hunziker. Officer Keeney wore a body camera that recorded the trip, but he had been instructed by an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) agent to not try and speak with her about the case. Hunziker, however, spoke with someone else in the ambulance, and that conversation was captured on the body camera. Officer Keeney testified at trial that Hunziker's demeanor in the ambulance and hospital swayed between crying, humming, and smiling; she seemed polite and did not appear intoxicated. In the video, shown at trial, Hunziker could be overheard conveying her version of events. She described how she parked a ways down from her ex-husband's house after years of unheeded claims of abuse and molestation and had it "all planned out"; went in with a knife in her hand; and started stabbing him, aiming for arteries. She reported that she had taken her mental-health medication but also drank some UV Blue liquor. She stated she had cut her hand when Jason tried to take the knife from her. Hunziker also explained she had planned to commit suicide so that J.H. could go live with her brother.

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Officer Keeney stayed with Hunziker in the hospital until Officer Gary Manhart relieved him. Though Officer Manhart also did not speak with Hunziker, he heard her telling medical staff about hearing voices in her head and suicidal ideations. At one point, before she left to shower, she began pressing on the wounds on her hands and said the voices told her she needed to die. That said, no police reports reflected her saying that the voices told her to kill Jason. Eventually, she was taken to jail.

Hunziker waived her right to a speedy trial, and the proceedings were continued until December 2019. Twice in that time, Hunziker asked for different counsel. The first time, November 21, 2017, she cited a conflict of interest with her current attorney. When she appeared at her arraignment on November 28 with her counsel, the court did not ask about the motion and Hunziker did not bring it up. Without further hearing, the court denied the order the next day. Yet again, on May 8, 2019, Hunziker requested new counsel, citing her belief that her attorney was not working very hard on the case and was difficult to reach. The district court held a hearing, and Hunziker testified that her trial had been continued twice[4] so she would prefer different counsel. Asked about her reasons for a change, she never mentioned a conflict of interest. Hunziker's attorney stated that she and Hunziker had discussed ways to communicate with phone appointments and what times Hunziker could contact her to ensure she was available. The court determined that Hunziker's concern did not require new counsel to be appointed

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and once more denied the motion; the same attorney continued to handle the case through trial.

Hunziker was found competent to stand trial.[5] Leading up to trial, she filed notice of her intent to rely on a defense of insanity or diminished responsibility. Hunziker has a documented personal and family history of mental illness. Both the State and Hunziker intended to present expert witnesses to testify to her mental state at the time of the killing. Hunziker's expert witness was a medical doctor, Dr. Thomas Gratzer. However, based on a miscommunication between defense counsel and Dr. Gratzer, the expert witness was unavailable for the set trial date and had limited availability in the months following. Hunziker moved for a continuance and presented oral argument on the issue at the pretrial hearing, which the court denied. In the denial, the court noted that Hunziker had been given ample time to prepare and that everyone else had fit their schedules around this date-the witness, the court opined, would simply need to rework his schedule, even if it required a subpoena. As a compromise, the court offered the options, subject to the State's agreement, of presenting the witness's...

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