State v. Veal

Decision Date24 May 2019
Docket NumberNo. 17-1453,17-1453
Citation930 N.W.2d 319
Parties STATE of Iowa, Appellee, v. Peter Leroy VEAL, Appellant.
CourtIowa Supreme Court
I. Introduction.

This double homicide case presents important questions concerning a defendant’s right to an impartial jury drawn from a fair cross section of the community, as well as a number of other trial-related issues. The defendant, an African-American, was charged with committing two murders in Cerro Gordo County and attempting to commit a third. Because of pretrial publicity he asked for a change of venue, and the trial was moved to Webster County. Although the Webster County jury venire contained five African-Americans, no African-American was seated on the jury that actually heard the defendant’s case. The State exercised a peremptory strike on the last remaining African-American on the panel because the State’s lead prosecutor in this case had also prosecuted her father successfully for murder. Following a jury trial, the defendant was convicted.

On appeal, we affirm the district court’s ruling that there was no Batson violation in the striking of the juror.1 We also reject the defendant’s claims of a speedy trial violation, prosecutorial error, evidentiary error, lack of competence to stand trial, and insufficient evidence to sustain his convictions. However, we believe further consideration of the defendant’s fair-cross-section claim is warranted in light of the decision we are filing today in State v. Lilly , 930 N.W.2d 293, 2019 WL 2236099 (Iowa 2019). Therefore, we conditionally affirm while remanding for further proceedings consistent with Lilly and this opinion.

II. Background Facts and Proceedings.

At about 2:00 a.m. on November 17, 2016, Mason City police officer Jennifer Barr was on patrol when she received a call from the dispatcher. An individual named Ron Willis, calling from outside Caleb Christensen’s house, reported that Peter Veal had shot Willis’s cousin and hit Willis on the head with a pistol. While en route to the location identified by the dispatcher, Officer Barr saw Veal walking in her direction. Veal was wearing a "light green coat," jeans, and a hat. Veal stopped when Officer Barr began to pull her patrol vehicle over. As soon as Officer Barr directed her spotlight toward Veal and made eye contact with him, he took off running. Officer Barr tried to pursue Veal but was unable to locate him.

When Veal was subsequently apprehended, he was shirtless and hatless, and it was apparent that his hands and jeans were very bloody. Veal also had mist drops of blood on his face. Veal had a cut on his hand, which he claimed to have received from jumping a fence, although the cut was on the top—not the bottom—of his hand.

Meanwhile, at Christensen’s house, two people were dead. Melinda Kavars, Willis’s cousin, was dead from a single gunshot wound

. Christensen had been stabbed to death as a result of multiple knife wounds. The semiautomatic handgun used to kill Kavars was found at the scene with a jammed cartridge inside.

The police spotted Willis outside Christensen’s house. He was shaking, sobbing, and crying. He informed police that Veal had shot Kavars and had tried to shoot him but the gun had malfunctioned. Willis explained that he had run out of the house. He expressed concern for the fate of Christensen. Willis had a cut on the top of his head where he said Veal had struck him with the gun.

There was a bloody trail beginning in the house that continued all the way to the location where Veal was apprehended. Along the trail, police found several items discarded by Veal—a hat, a cellphone, a green jacket, a shirt, and a folding knife.

A footprint analysis confirmed that the bloody footprints in the house matched the shoes Veal had been wearing. There was no trace or trail of blood out the door where Willis had exited.

DNA analysis confirmed the presence of Christensen’s blood on Veal’s discarded knife and shirt. Christensen’s blood was also found on the jeans and shoes Veal was still wearing when apprehended. Veal’s shirt, jeans, and shoes also contained evidence of his own blood.

An analysis of the gun determined that Willis’s skin tissue was on the back of the slide. This was consistent with Willis’s claim that Veal had struck Willis with the gun after it jammed when Veal tried to shoot Willis. The gun also had DNA from an unknown contributor on the textured portion of the pistol grip, but the sample was too weak to determine the source of the DNA.

Willis knew both Veal and Christensen. Willis later testified that on November 16, at around 7:00 p.m., Willis received a call from Veal, who wanted to hang out. Willis picked up Veal and bought beer from a liquor store before the two of them arrived at Christensen’s home at around 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. Willis introduced Veal to Christensen.

Later, Willis and Veal left and went over to Kavars’s home. As noted, Kavars was Willis’s cousin. She had invited Willis over for an early Thanksgiving dinner. Willis introduced Veal to Kavars. While at Kavars’s house, Veal cut two lines of methamphetamine with a pocket knife. Kavars and Veal inhaled methamphetamine through a straw, and Willis smoked marijuana. After about forty minutes, the three of them went over to Christensen’s house. They likely arrived after midnight.

At Christensen’s house, the four of them socialized in the living room. Willis and Veal drank beer, Kavars drank Vodka, and Christensen drank whiskey. Veal indicated at some point that he was not feeling well. Willis told him to go outside and get some fresh air. Veal left for about ten or fifteen minutes. When he came back in, he sat down briefly, but then he got back up and went to the bathroom.

Shortly thereafter, Veal returned from the bathroom and sat down. Willis and Kavars were talking and laughing when suddenly Willis saw Veal abruptly rise from his seat and shoot Kavars in the throat with a pistol. Willis could not see the location from which Veal had obtained the gun. Willis observed blood coming from Kavars’s throat, and he watched her take her final breaths.

Veal then turned the pistol on Willis. Willis pled with him not to shoot. "I got kids, Peter," he told him. Veal attempted to fire but the gun jammed. Veal hit Willis on the right side of the head with the pistol.

As this was happening, Christensen was frozen on the couch. Willis saw Veal trying to get the jammed round out of the pistol, and Willis started running, believing Christensen would be following him. By the time Willis reached the side exterior door in the kitchen, the place was dark because the only lamp being used in the house had gone out. Willis managed to unlock the door in the dark and exit the house. The last thing he heard Christensen say as he was departing was, "What the f___ are you doing?"

Once out of the home, Willis ran across the street and called 911. Willis later saw Veal leave the house and run south. Willis remained across the street and called some friends who arrived and helped calm him down. When the police came, Willis remained at the scene. He gave the police permission to search his vehicle, and he agreed to go to the police station to make a statement.

On November 23, the State filed a trial information in the Iowa District Court for Cerro Gordo County charging Veal with two counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of Kavars and Christensen and one count of attempted murder with respect to Willis. See Iowa Code §§ 707.1, .2(1)(a ), .11 (2017). Because of the publicity surrounding the case, Veal sought a change of venue, and the trial was moved to Webster County.

The parties appeared for trial on Monday, July 10, 2017. Of the Webster County jury pool of 100 people who had returned juror surveys, eighty-seven of them checked in at the courthouse that morning.

Veal is African-American. However, of those in the jury pool who reported their ethnicity, only one juror had self-identified as African-American, and she did not appear on July 10. Webster County is approximately 4.6% African-American.2

Before voir dire began, Veal objected to the jury venire. He alleged a violation of his Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial based on underrepresentation and systematic exclusion of African-Americans from the jury selection process.

The court initially gave the defense until later that day to investigate its claim of underrepresentation and systematic exclusion. Further discussions took place on the record during the course of the day, and the court ultimately agreed to conduct a hearing on July 11. Because July 10 was the ninetieth day for speedy trial purposes, the court found good cause to extend the speedy trial deadline to July 11.

In an attempt to increase the number of African-Americans in the venire, the court summoned an additional jury pool to appear on the 11th. The court also instructed the sheriff to contact the jurors who had been summoned but had not appeared on the 10th.

With the extra jury pool, there were 153 potential jurors available at the courthouse on July 11.3 Five were African-American.4 Meanwhile, defense counsel had completed a historical review of jury questionnaires in Webster County for all of 2016. They reported to the court that the overall African-American percentage of Webster County jury pools that year was approximately 1.3%. Veal moved to strike the jury panel and dismiss the case, arguing the State had systematically excluded and underrepresented African-Americans in its jury pools in violation of the Sixth Amendment and that it was too late to fix the problem given the speedy trial deadline.

The district court denied the motions, noting that the additional pool had redressed to some extent the lack of African-American jurors in the original pool. As the court explained in its subsequent written ruling,

The Court denied Defendant’s motion [to strike the jury panel] based on both the second and third part of the Duren [v. Missouri , 439 U.S. 357, 99 S. Ct. 664 (1979) ] te

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