State v. Huser, 14-0277

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Citation894 N.W.2d 472
Docket NumberNo. 14-0277,14-0277
Parties STATE of Iowa, Appellee, v. Vernon Lee HUSER, Appellant.
Decision Date05 May 2017

894 N.W.2d 472

STATE of Iowa, Appellee,
Vernon Lee HUSER, Appellant.

No. 14-0277

Supreme Court of Iowa.

Filed May 5, 2017

Alfredo Parrish and Andrew Dunn of Parrish, Kruidenier, Dunn, Boles, Gribble, Gentry, Brown & Bergmann, L.L.P., Des Moines, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Sharon K. Hall, Assistant Attorney General, John P. Sarcone, County Attorney, Steve Foritano and Michael Salvner, Assistant County Attorneys, for appellee.

APPEL, Justice.

In this case, we consider an appeal by Vernon Huser arising from his conviction of first-degree murder in connection with the death of Lance Morningstar. In a separate proceeding, the State convicted Louis Woolheater of the Morningstar murder. The State prosecuted Huser on the theory that Huser aided and abetted Woolheater in the murder and was motivated to do so because Morningstar had an affair with Huser's wife.

At his first trial, Huser was convicted of first-degree murder. The court of appeals reversed his first conviction on the ground the district court improperly allowed the admission of prejudicial hearsay evidence. The State retried Huser, and he was again convicted. Huser appeals his second conviction.

Huser claims that his second conviction must be reversed because (1) the State failed to produce sufficient evidence to convict Huser of aiding and abetting the murder of Morningstar; (2) the district court erred in refusing to grant a mistrial, strike a witness's entire testimony, or give a requested

894 N.W.2d 478

curative instruction as a result of the improper admission of "backdoor" hearsay evidence; (3) the district court erred in refusing to admit evidence tending to show that Woolheater had personal motives for the murder; (4) the district court erred in refusing to grant a mistrial because of prosecutorial misconduct; and (5) cumulatively the above errors are sufficiently harmful to require reversal of Huser's conviction.

A divided court of appeals rejected Huser's claim. We granted further review. For the reasons stated below, we reverse Huser's conviction and remand the case for a new trial.

I. Factual and Procedural Background.

A. Conviction of Woolheater. The partially decomposed body of Morningstar was discovered in February 2005 in a forested area in Altoona near Woolheater's home. Police immediately began investigating Woolheater and subsequently charged him with first-degree murder. Woolheater was convicted after a jury trial. The conviction was upheld by the court of appeals. State v. Woolheater , No. 10-0478, 2011 WL 6079094, at *6 (Iowa Ct. App. Dec. 7, 2011).

B. First Huser Trial and Appeal.

1. Overview of evidence at the first trial . In May 2009, the State charged Huser with murder in the first degree, alleging that he aided and abetted Woolheater in the killing of Morningstar. Huser pled not guilty. The case first came to trial in October 2010. See State v. Huser (Huser I ), No. 10-2067, 2011 WL 6079120, at *2 (Iowa Ct. App. Dec. 7, 2011).

At the first trial, the evidence, as summarized by the court of appeals, showed that Vernon and Deb Huser met in the early 1990s. Id. at *1. The couple purchased a modest garbage disposal route and substantially grew the business into what became known as Ankeny Sanitation. Id. They ultimately married, but their relationship grew tumultuous in the summer of 2003. Id. The following fall, Huser grew suspicious that Deb was having an affair and hired a private detective who observed Morningstar—a mutual friend of the Husers'—and Deb together. Id. Huser confronted Deb, and she admitted the affair. Id. The affair continued until April 2004, and the Husers' divorce was finalized in May 2004. Id.

After the divorce, Huser remained very angry about the relationship between Deb and Morningstar and made statements threatening to "put the red dot" on Morningstar's head and that he could hire someone to kill Morningstar and nobody would find the body. Id. Huser was introduced to Woolheater in the spring of 2004 by a friend, Lawrence Webb. Id.

Morningstar was last seen on September 30, 2004, leaving a bar at about 10:30 p.m. Id. at *2. On that date, Woolheater was spending time with a girlfriend, Michelle Zwank. Id. Woolheater instructed Zwank to drop him off at a baseball field outside Morningstar's house and return when called. Id. When Zwank returned to pick up Woolheater, he told her to drive to Morningstar's house. Id. At Morningstar's house, they loaded a body wrapped in a tarp into Zwank's truck and returned to Woolheater's residence. Id.

At trial, the State offered evidence of statements made by Woolheater to Webb, Patti Mitrisin, and Marie Connett. Id. at *6. Woolheater's friend, Webb, testified about statements made by Woolheater after Morningstar's body was discovered. Id. Webb testified that Woolheater told him (1) the body "wasn't supposed to be there. It was supposed to be in a pit in Oklahoma,"

894 N.W.2d 479

(2) the murder weapon was "a .22," and (3) only Woolheater, Webb, and Huser knew about the body. Id. In addition, Webb testified that Woolheater told him that he had been following Morningstar, "was going to rough him up," and had already done so by breaking his ribs. Id. at *7. When Webb asked Woolheater why he would do that Woolheater replied, "Vern wanted something done about it." Id.

Mitrisin testified that in September 2004, she and Woolheater drove to Woolheater's Quonset hut where a person was waiting for Woolheater. Id. Woolheater exited the truck to talk to the person. Id. When he returned to the truck, Woolheater identified the individual as Huser. Id. When Mitrisin asked what they were talking about, Woolheater replied, "[T]here was a guy messing around with Vern's wife or ex-wife ... and he wanted this guy roughed up." Id.

Finally, Connett testified that she had a telephone conversation with Woolheater. Id. According to Connett, Woolheater told her that "there was someone he knew, one of his friend's wives was cheating on him, and that [his friend] wanted to kill him." Id. Connett further stated that Woolheater said he was going to kill the other man. Id. When she asked why, Connett reported Woolheater said, "Because we stick together." Id.

On this record, the jury convicted Huser of murder in the first degree by aiding and abetting another. Huser was sentenced to life in prison.

2. First appeal . Huser appealed. Huser argued, among other things, that the testimonies of Webb, Mitrisin, and Connett about what Woolheater told them were hearsay and should not have been admitted at trial. Id. at *6. The State argued that the challenged testimony was offered for a nonhearsay purpose. Id. at *11. We transferred the case to the court of appeals.

The court of appeals reversed. Id. at *13. The court of appeals noted that hearsay may be admitted to show the impact it had on a third party, but it could not be admitted to show or explain the conduct of the party making the statement. Id. at *11. The court of appeals noted that none of the hearsay statements were offered to show the impact of the statements on Webb, Mitrisin, or Connett. Id . Although defense counsel failed to properly object to the testimony of Webb and Connett, the court of appeals concluded that the failure to object amounted to a breach of a material duty. Id. at *12.

Having found the admission of hearsay from Webb, Mitrisin, and Connett impermissible, the court of appeals turned to the question of prejudice. Id. Because the hearsay from Mitrisin was subject to a timely objection, the court of appeals held prejudice was presumed, and the State must affirmatively establish that Huser's substantial rights were not injured by the jury's consideration of the hearsay statements. Id. ; State v. Sullivan , 679 N.W.2d 19, 30 (Iowa 2004). With respect to the statements offered by Webb and Connett, the court of appeals recognized the burden rested on the defendant to show "there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Huser , 2011 WL 6079120, at *12 (quoting Strickland v. Washington , 466 U.S. 668, 694, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 2068, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984) ).

The court of appeals determined that Huser's conviction must be reversed because of the prejudice to Huser from the introduction of the hearsay statements. Id. at *13. The court of appeals recognized the State had presented strong evidence of Huser's motive to have Morningstar

894 N.W.2d 480

killed. Id. And, the State had presented compelling evidence that Woolheater killed Morningstar. Id. Yet, the court of appeals reasoned the three hearsay statements provided a critical link between Huser's motive and Woolheater's action. Id . According to the court of appeals, Woolheater's statements to Webb, Mitrisin, and Connett were "the most direct proof of Huser's encouragement of Woolheater's murderous acts." Id. at *12.

Finally, the court of appeals noted that the evidence of aiding and abetting was "not overwhelming." Id. at *13. The court of appeals emphasized there were no witnesses at the scene of the murder and no clear money trail between Huser and Woolheater. Id. Without the...

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