State v. Richards

Decision Date06 May 2016
Docket NumberNo. 14–0019.,14–0019.
Citation879 N.W.2d 140
PartiesSTATE of Iowa, Appellee, v. Toby Ryan RICHARDS, Appellant.
CourtIowa Supreme Court

Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Shellie L. Knipfer, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Kevin Cmelik and Alexandra Link (until withdrawal), Assistant Attorneys General, Michael J. Walton, County Attorney, and Elizabeth Cervantes, Assistant County Attorney, for appellee.


, Justice.

On trial for domestic abuse assault, Toby Richards asserted he acted in self-defense after his then-girlfriend, Trish Poell, instigated the confrontation. The State offered evidence about previous incidents during which Richards allegedly slapped Poell, struck her neck with his cell phone, and threw her against a refrigerator. While these other acts could be viewed as textbook examples of propensity evidence, the State asserted they were admissible because they were probative of Richards's intent in committing the charged assault. See Iowa R. Evid. 5.404(b )

(providing evidence of other acts is inadmissible to prove conformity with character, but may “be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of ... intent”).

Richards objected, contending that because he had asserted self-defense, his intent was not genuinely at issue, so the real purpose of the other-acts testimony was to establish his violent propensity and suggest that if he had assaulted Poell before, he must have done so again. Additionally, Richards contended the evidence was unfairly prejudicial. The district court admitted the evidence and the jury ultimately convicted Richards of domestic abuse assault. The court of appeals affirmed his conviction because it concluded the district court properly admitted the other acts evidence. On further review, we find no abuse of discretion in the district court's ruling. We therefore affirm.

I. Background Facts & Proceedings.

On February 2, 2013, Poell was visiting Richards at his mother's house in Davenport, where Richards lived. Both Poell and Richards were napping, Poell in bed and Richards on a couch in the same room. Beyond those facts, however, accounts of the day's events diverge significantly.

A. Poell's Testimony. According to Poell, she awoke to discover a message on her cell phone from another woman—the mother of Richards's daughter—that stated, [I]f you knew what your man does when you're not around.” Poell responded that she was always around, and the other woman replied, [Y]ou weren't Wednesday night when he was in my bed.”

Upset at these allegations of infidelity, Poell approached Richards, who was still sleeping on the couch, and “tapped him on his shoulder” to wake him up and tell him the relationship was over. When Richards asked why, Poell told him about the messages from the other woman and revealed she had also discovered a message from Richards to the other woman asking her to call him. Richards tried to explain the messages, but Poell did not want to listen. Richards pushed Poell onto the bed and lay on top of her, holding her down for a length of time Poell believed was at least five minutes.

Eventually Richards released Poell, and she began to retrieve her coat and car keys. Richards implored Poell not to leave because his children referred to her as their mom. Poell responded, [F]uck [them]. I don't care. I want to go. It's over.” After that remark, Richards began punching Poell's head, face, and arms. Poell threw her hands up to protect her face and tried to push Richards off her. Although the altercation continued for some time, eventually Richards “just stopped hitting.” At that point, Poell quickly left the house, locked herself in her car, and waited for police to arrive.

B. Richards's Testimony. Richards contended Poell was the aggressor. He disputed that Poell woke him up by tapping his shoulder. Instead, he asserted, Poell punched his forehead and then immediately began to use her hands and fists to hit him, including clawing at Richards with her fingernails. Poell's physical contact “wasn't really hurting” Richards, but he eventually “got tired of it,” so he grabbed Poell's wrists as he tried to explain any communication between him and the other woman was innocuous.

The message from him to the other woman asking her to call him, Richards explained, was a necessary communication because it involved a parenting question about Richards's daughter, but it angered Poell because she had arbitrarily forbidden Richards from contacting the other woman for any reason. When Poell discovered the message, she simply refused to accept Richards's parenting question as a valid reason for the communication even though the message itself did not imply Richards had been unfaithful to Poell. Richards did not testify about the message stating he was in the other woman's bed.

As the physical altercation continued, the parties fell onto the bed. Eventually Richards's mother intervened and convinced Richards to release his hold on Poell. Richards's mother then sat with Poell on the couch and explained to Poell that any communication between Richards and the other woman was only about Richards's daughter. When Poell responded with profanity toward Richards's children, Richards decided he had heard enough. He grabbed Poell's wrists again and told her, “Get the F out of my house.... I don't want nothing to do with you anymore.” He pulled Poell off the couch into a standing position and followed her out the door as she left.

C. Other Testimony. A few other witnesses testified, including Richards's mother and both Davenport police officers who responded to a 911 call about the dispute between Richards and Poell.

Officer Hagedorn testified that when he arrived, he spoke with Richards. Richards admitted to Officer Hagedorn that he had shoved Poell and pushed her down on the bed to keep her from continuing to hit him, but insisted he had not struck her. Officer Hagedorn observed some scratches on Richards's chest and face, which were unquestionably injuries but, Officer Hagedorn stated, were not necessarily consistent with absorbing a punch. Officer Welch was working with Officer Hagedorn that day and, upon arrival, spoke with Poell. He noticed Poell was bleeding and had fresh facial injuries.

After conversing with Richards, Poell, and Richards's mother, the officers arrested Richards, sent Poell home, and dispatched an evidence technician to her house to photograph her injuries. The photos, taken about forty-five minutes after the altercation, show Poell with bruises on her hands and nose, a swollen cheek, scratches on her face, and blood running down her nose. At the police station, officers also photographed Richards, and those photos corroborate the officers' testimony as to the extent of his injuries. Richards suggested all of Poell's injuries, including bruises on her hands and face, were self-inflicted because [s]he was going pretty wild with her hands,” or may have been preexisting bruises from Poell's cleaning business because [s]he's a very physical worker.”

Richards's mother also provided her recollection of the incident. Upon hearing some screaming, she ran into the room and saw Richards and Poell careening onto the bed, with Poell striking Richards in the face, chest, and neck. Although Richards and Poell stopped physically scuffling for a brief time, they kept arguing, and eventually Richards told Poell, [J]ust leave.” Richards's mother did say she saw Richards striking Poell “a little bit,” but did not believe he was doing any more than was necessary to stop Poell from hitting him.

D. Legal Proceedings. The State charged Richards with domestic abuse assault causing bodily injury. See Iowa Code § 236.2(2)(d )

(2013); id. §§ 708.1(1), .2A(1), .2A(2)(b ). Richards filed a notice of intent to assert self-defense. He also filed a motion in limine seeking to exclude evidence about his criminal record or previous contacts with police. The State resisted the motion and additionally asserted “past uncharged instances of domestic violence that the Defendant has perpetrated against the victim in this case were admissible to prove Richards's intent. See

State v. Taylor, 689 N.W.2d 116, 126 (Iowa 2004) (concluding other acts evidence was admissible to prove intent because a defendant's prior conduct directed to the victim of a crime, whether loving or violent, ... is highly probative of the defendant's probable motivation and intent in subsequent situations”). Richards responded that evidence of uncharged incidents is inadmissible propensity evidence under rule 5.404(b ). The court reserved ruling on the matter to allow Richards to depose Poell and determine the details of the uncharged incidents the State intended to present.

In her deposition, Poell alleged that in four separate incidents within the previous year, Richards had slapped her face, thrown his cell phone at her neck, angrily argued with other members of her family, and thrown her against a refrigerator. In response to Richards's renewed motion to exclude the other acts evidence, the State contended Richards's decision to assert self-defense brought intent into dispute, and so the evidence of other acts was admissible to prove Richards's intent—especially because domestic violence can be cyclical and juries should see a full picture of the parties' relationship, not a sanitized version. Furthermore, the State asserted the evidence was admissible to rebut Richards's self-defense theory.

The district court ruled the evidence admissible and overruled Richards's renewed objections at trial. However, the court curtailed the scope of the other acts evidence to avoid the danger of allowing inflammatory emotional testimony that might prejudice the jury and prompt it to decide the case on an improper emotional basis. See State v. Putman, 848 N.W.2d 1, 15 (Iowa 2014)

([C]oncerns about prejudice to a defendant might be eased by narrowing the scope of the prior-bad-acts evidence presented to...

To continue reading

Request your trial
15 cases
  • State v. Garcia
    • United States
    • Iowa Supreme Court
    • November 17, 2017
    ...these defendants were dangerous). In any event, Gomez Garcia waived the jury, and his case was tried to the court. See State v. Richards, 879 N.W.2d 140, 152 (Iowa 2016) (contrasting jury trials and bench trials because the judge is less susceptible to deciding the case on an improper basis......
  • State v. Thoren
    • United States
    • Iowa Supreme Court
    • February 25, 2022
    ..., 512 N.W.2d 305 (Iowa 1994), to the extent it described the rule as one of inclusion rather than exclusion); see also State v. Richards , 879 N.W.2d 140, 153 (Iowa 2016) ("Our decision today does not—and we do not intend it to—retreat from our well-established understanding that rule 5.404......
  • United States v. Perry
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit
    • July 2, 2021
    ...government met its burden "by proving ... [t]he defendant initiated or continued the incident resulting in injury." State v. Richards , 879 N.W.2d 140, 148 (Iowa 2016) (quoting State v. Rubino , 602 N.W.2d 558, 565 (Iowa 1999) ). Therefore, the district court did not clearly err in determin......
  • State v. Washington
    • United States
    • Iowa Court of Appeals
    • October 26, 2016
    ...the State had the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that his actions were not justified. See State v. Toby Richards, 879 N.W.2d 140, 148 (Iowa 2016). In order to do so, the State could prove any of the following:1. The defendant initiated or continued the incident resulting in injur......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT