State v. Mathis, 20-0464

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtMcDONALD, Justice.
Parties STATE of Iowa, Appellee, v. Justice MATHIS, Appellant.
Docket Number20-0464
Decision Date18 March 2022

971 N.W.2d 514

STATE of Iowa, Appellee,
v.
Justice MATHIS, Appellant.

No. 20-0464

Supreme Court of Iowa.

Submitted February 23, 2022
Filed March 18, 2022


Martha J. Lucey, State Appellate Defender, and Theresa R. Wilson, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Tyler J. Buller, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

McDonald, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which all justices joined.

McDONALD, Justice.

Justice Mathis was convicted of three counts of sexual abuse in the second degree, a class "B" felony, in violation of Iowa Code sections 709.1(3) and 709.3(1)(b ) (2017). Mathis raises two claims in this direct appeal. First, Mathis claims there is insufficient evidence to support his convictions. Second, Mathis claims the district court erred in instructing the jury that "[t]here is no requirement that the testimony of an alleged victim of sexual offenses be corroborated." The court of appeals affirmed Mathis's convictions, and we granted Mathis's application for further review.

I.

We first address Mathis's challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his convictions for sexual abuse in the second degree. This court reviews sufficiency of evidence claims for the correction of errors at law. State v. Jones , 967 N.W.2d 336, 339 (Iowa 2021). In reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence, we are highly deferential to the jury's verdict. The jury's verdict binds this court if it is supported by substantial evidence. State v. Tipton , 897 N.W.2d 653, 692 (Iowa 2017). Substantial evidence is evidence sufficient to convince a rational trier of fact the

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defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. In determining whether the jury's verdict is supported by substantial evidence, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, including all "legitimate inferences and presumptions that may fairly and reasonably be deduced from the record evidence." Id. (quoting State v. Williams , 695 N.W.2d 23, 27 (Iowa 2005) ).

The trial record reflects the following. Mathis resided in a house with his grandmother, Brenda Atkins, and Brenda's husband (Mathis's stepgrandfather), Mickie Atkins. Mathis was raised by Brenda from birth and often referred to her as his mother. Brenda's daughter, Stephenie, lived near the Atkinses. Stephenie has five children, including a daughter, B.T., and a son, L.S. Between approximately October 2015 and November 2017, B.T. and L.S. visited the Atkins’ home three to five days per week. During this time, B.T. was between seven and nine years old, and L.S. was between five and seven years old. Their visits to the Atkins’ home often occurred after school or when Stephenie had to work evening shifts. Some of the visits were overnight.

The allegations of abuse surfaced in November 2017 when Stephenie walked in on L.S. and his younger sibling engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior. Upon inquiry, L.S. stated he learned the behavior from Mickie. Eventually B.T. and L.S. reported to their mother that both Mickie and Mathis had sexually abused them during their visits to their grandparents’ house. Stephenie reported the sexual abuse allegations to the local police. The children were taken to a child protection center where they underwent forensic interviews and physical examinations. No physical evidence of abuse was found during the examinations.

Mickie and Mathis were both charged with sexual abuse in the second degree. Mathis was seventeen at the time the trial information was filed. He initially moved to transfer the case to the juvenile court but later withdrew the request. Although the allegations against Mickie and Mathis were different, and although there were no allegations they acted in concert, Mickie and Mathis elected to be tried together. B.T. and L.S. were the primary witnesses at trial. Most of the testimony at trial related to Mickie's abuse of the children, and we see no need to discuss that testimony here.

With respect to Mathis, B.T. testified that on one occasion between October 2015 and November 2017, Mathis engaged in vaginal intercourse with her in Mathis's bedroom. B.T. could not identify the specific date when this occurred, but she testified it was sometime before she turned eleven. L.S. testified that Mathis "made [him] come upstairs a lot" to Mathis's bedroom. L.S. testified that when he was in Mathis's bedroom, Mathis engaged in anal intercourse with him. Although L.S. could not specify the exact number of times the abuse occurred or specify the exact dates upon which the abuse occurred, he testified that it occurred on more than one occasion between October 2015 and November 2017. Based on L.S.’s birthdate, the abuse occurred sometime before L.S. turned eight years old. L.S. testified he did not disclose the abuse sooner because Mathis threatened to punch him if he said anything.

Mathis testified, and he denied any inappropriate conduct with B.T. or L.S. Mathis testified that he did not want the children in his bedroom and asked them not to enter his bedroom because it was a "pigsty." He testified there were empty soft drink cans and bottles on the floor along with "fantasy blades," or swords, he

971 N.W.2d 518

collected. Because of the messy conditions, he believed the room would be dangerous to the children. Mathis testified that the children only spent any length of time in his bedroom on one occasion, when Mathis and a friend were playing video games in the bedroom.

Brenda (Mathis's grandmother) also testified at trial. She testified that Mathis would become "annoyed" if the children tried to enter his bedroom. To the best of her knowledge, the children were never alone with Mathis. She was not always in the home, however. She testified that on at least five occasions between October 2015 and November 2017, she was hospitalized. She testified that it was possible B.T. and L.S. could have been alone with Mathis, without her knowledge, during these hospitalizations. She also testified that she had limited mobility that prevented her from ascending the stairs to Mathis's bedroom, meaning anything happening in Mathis's bedroom was out of her view.

Considered in the light most favorable to the State, substantial evidence supports the jury's verdict that Mathis committed sexual abuse against B.T. and L.S. Where, as here, the defendant does not object to the marshaling instructions, the marshaling instructions are the law of the case for purposes of reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence. State v. Canal , 773 N.W.2d 528, 530 (Iowa 2009). In this case, the marshaling instructions required the State to prove (1) that Mathis "performed a sex act upon" B.T. and L.S., and (2) that Mathis "performed the sex act while [the victim] was under the age of 12." The definition of "sex act" in the jury instructions included vaginal or anal penetration. Both B.T. and L.S. testified to specific instances where Mathis performed sex acts against them while they were under the age of twelve. The victims’ testimony itself is sufficient to constitute substantial evidence of Mathis's guilt. See Iowa R. Crim. P. 2.21(3) ; State v. Donahue , 957 N.W.2d 1, 10–11 (Iowa 2021) ; State v. Hildreth , 582 N.W.2d 167, 170 (Iowa 1998). While Mathis flatly denied committing any of the alleged abuse, it was for the jury to resolve the conflicts between the testimony of Mathis on the one hand and B.T. and L.S. on the other. See State v. Lacey , 968 N.W.2d 792, 803 (Iowa 2021) ("Inherent in our standard of review of jury verdicts in criminal cases is the recognition that the jury [is] free to reject...

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