State v. Jonas

Decision Date01 December 2017
Docket NumberNo. 15-1560,15-1560
Citation904 N.W.2d 566
Parties STATE of Iowa, Appellee, v. Stephen Robert JONAS, Appellant.
CourtIowa Supreme Court

Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Robert P. Ranschau, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Linda J. Hines, Assistant Attorney General, John Sarcone, County Attorney, and Olu A. Salami, Assistant County Attorney, for appellee.

APPEL, Justice.

In this case a gay defendant, Stephen Jonas, was charged with first-degree murder in a case with sexual overtones. Among other claims, Jonas asserts the district court improperly failed to strike for cause a potential juror who expressed bias against gay people in a jury questionnaire and in response to questioning in voir dire as required by Iowa Rule of Criminal Procedure 2.18(5)(k). Because of the district court's refusal to disqualify the potential juror, Jonas exercised one of his peremptory strikes, granted by Iowa Rule of Criminal Procedure 2.18(9), to remove the potential juror from the jury. The case proceeded to a jury trial. Jonas was convicted of second-degree murder.

Jonas appealed. Jonas claims that because he was forced to use a peremptory strike to disqualify a potential juror who should have been disqualified for cause, reversal is required even though the challenged potential juror was not seated and there is no specific showing of prejudice in the case. Jonas recognizes our prior precedent, State v. Neuendorf, 509 N.W.2d 743, 747 (Iowa 1993), is contrary to his position and invites us to reconsider that precedent. Jonas also asserts that there was insufficient evidence to support the jury verdict and that his counsel was ineffective for failing to object to statements made by the prosecutor in closing arguments and failing to request a limiting instruction with respect to other statements made by the prosecution in closing arguments.

We transferred the case to the court of appeals. On the question of jury selection, the court of appeals, citing Neuendorf, rejected Jonas's challenge on the ground that even if the district court erred in refusing to dismiss the potential juror, the defendant failed to show prejudice. The court of appeals further rejected Jonas's challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence and his claims that counsel was ineffective for failing to object to closing argument and failing to seek a limiting instruction.

We granted further review. When we grant further review, we have discretion to limit the issues considered by this court. State v. Pearson, 804 N.W.2d 260, 265 (Iowa 2011). We allow the decision of the court of appeals to stand on the sufficiency-of-the-evidence and ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims. We consider only the question of whether the verdict must be reversed under the circumstances because the district court failed to disqualify the potential juror for cause. For the reasons expressed below, we affirm.

I. Factual and Procedural Background.

On August 23, 2014, Zachery Paulson was found dead in the lot of his father's business bordering the Clive Greenbelt Trail. Following an autopsy, it was determined Paulson died from multiple stab and incised wounds. The police investigation focused on Jonas. Jonas ultimately admitted to stabbing Paulson but asserted he did so in self-defense.

According to Jonas, about one week before Paulson's death, he and Paulson engaged in a mutual hug that led to kissing. Other witnesses described the encounter as unwanted and Paulson pushed Jonas away and asked him to leave. After the incident, Jonas continued to contact Paulson via text message throughout the next week. The text messages went unanswered.

Jonas claimed on the night of Paulson's death, he went to a local bar to confront Paulson about the incident. According to Jonas, he and Paulson left the bar for a parking lot where they engaged in small talk. Jonas maintained Paulson struck him with a hammer and a fight ensued. Jonas told the police he remembered stabbing Paulson only five times. Paulson was moaning when Jonas left the scene, and Paulson eventually died from the wounds.

On September 30, 2014, Jonas was charged by trial information with murder in the first degree. Jonas filed a notice of defense of justification. The trial began on July 2, 2015.

A written questionnaire asked each potential juror the following question: "The defendant in this case is gay. Would this fact in any way influence your ability to be fair and impartial if you were selected to be a juror in this case?" A potential juror put an X next to "yes" and, in the place provided for an explanation, wrote "I would try to keep an open mind, but I would have a hard time overlooking it." During voir dire, Jonas's defense attorney asked the potential juror about the potential juror's affirmative answer to the question. The defense attorney asked, about Jonas's sexuality, "You agree that fact is going to affect your ability to be fair?" The potential juror replied, "Somewhere in the back of my mind something would come up. I just—I'm just being honest with you." The defense attorney pressed further, "So is it fair to say that you are not going to be able to give Mr. Jonas a fair trial because of that?" The potential juror answered,

I would say that young man would probably do better without me on the jury, just to be honest with you. I would try to be fair. I'm 50 years old and I would try to be fair, but he probably would have better jury selection than myself.

The defense attorney asked, "Because is that a factor you will not be able to exclude?" The potential juror said, "I don't know if I'd be able to. I would try to exclude it, but, you know, somewhere in the back something is going to come up I guess."

The prosecutor tried to get a different answer from the potential juror, asking if the juror could not make a decision based on the evidence. The potential juror responded, "Again, I would sit there and somewhere along the way something would come up in the back of my mind. I will try. Honestly I will try that, but the young man would probably do better with someone else." The prosecutor said, "I know you have personal feelings. Can you set those aside and made a decision based on [the evidence and the judge's instructions]?" The potential juror answered,

Again, I would try, but I'm sure there would be something that would come up.... I'm 50 years old. I work with truckers and guys in oil refineries and in oil wells. It's just permeated in my life. So I will try to be honest and fair, but again, there would be something that would come up. I'm just being honest.

The court then took over questioning of the potential juror:

THE COURT: When you say there is going to be something that comes up, what do you mean by that? A. You know, in the back of my mind, and I don't want to insult anybody here, I just would—I don't know. I would think I will try to be honest, but then again I would be like, oh, well. And I can't explain it exactly.
THE COURT: My question for us is this: Does the fact that the defendant, Mr. Jonas, has identified himself as a gay man, does that fact alone cause you to be biased or prejudice[d] against him in determining whether or not he's guilty or innocent in this case? A. Again, I don't think it would be determined whether he was guilty or innocent, but I would still have a bias there some place, yes.
THE COURT: Okay. So are you—if I instruct you as to what the law is, are you going to be able to follow what the law says? A. Yes.
THE COURT: Are you—does the fact that the defendant, again, is gay, does that cause you to not be able to listen to the evidence and keep an open mind with respect to guilty or not guilty, the facts of this case? Do you understand that question? That was a little bit— A. I understand that, you know, again the facts are going to be the facts and my—and that's what we will hear and that's what we will determine. But, again, somewhere down in the—
THE COURT: Well, the law doesn't require that you forget the fact that Mr. Jonas is gay, so that's why I'm concerned about the fact that you are telling us that there is something that might pop up in the back of your head. You don't have to forget the fact that he has identified himself as being gay.
Is that what you are telling the Court is that you are not going to be able to forget the fact that he's gay. Or do you think that the fact that he's gay means that more likely than not that he—that you are not going to be able to give him a fair trial? A. I think, again, the gentleman would probably do better without me on the jury. I think there could be something in the back of my mind that would—again, I'd listen to the facts. I would try my best, but it's who we are.

The defense attorney then resumed questioning the potential juror, asking him if there will still be bias in the back of his mind. "I think there will be, yes, sir," the potential juror replied. The defense attorney asked the potential juror if a gay man making a sexual advance to another man would bother him. The potential juror said, "[I]t would bother me, yes."

After the potential juror left the room, Jonas's defense attorney moved to dismiss him for cause, stating, "[T]here is no question that this juror cannot be fair and impartial to Mr. Jonas because he is gay." After hearing arguments from both sides regarding the potential juror, the court made the following ruling:

Well, my problem is he has said that he's going to have it in the back of his mind and that the defendant would be better off not having him as a juror. After he said that, he still continues to express the opinion that he could be fair and unbiased and be able to try a fair case.
And I just don't think that the record is there to strike him for cause at this point. So I'm going to allow [the juror] to stay on the panel.

The potential juror was allowed to stay on the panel until defense counsel used a peremptory strike to remove him. Jonas used all ten of his peremptory...

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