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Christensen attorney argues appeal

Spies urges judges to find new trial remedy for juror, investigator irregularities

February 23, 2018
Amy H. Peterson - Staff Writer ( , Estherville News

DES MOINES - Wednesday afternoon at Grandview College in Des Moines, the Iowa Court of Appeals held oral arguments open to the public. The first of two cases before the judges was the appeal of Lee Christensen of Estherville. Christensen is convicted of second-degree murder for killing Thomas Bortvit June 6, 2015.

Christensen was not in attendance. Oral arguments in appellate cases are argued by attorneys. Wednesday a panel of five, including Chief Judge David R. Danilson, Anuradha Vaitheswaran, Mary E. Tabor, Richard Doyle and Christopher McDonald, asked each attorney questions about their interpretation of laws and rules of procedure as each proceeded through their cases.

Leon Spies was first as Christensen is the person seeking the appeal. He had 10 minutes, including answering questions from various judges, to present the case.

Spies introduced the situation, stating, "Lee Christensen was a gifted, talented, popular high school student and athlete who shot and killed a popular, gifted college student."

Spies said, "[Christensen] believed he would have unbiased jurors." Spies said he urged the court to find Christensen's right to a fair trial was violated due to misconduct from jurors and a question from the Assistant State Attorney General to a crime lab investigator during the trial.

Judge McDonald said, "As I read the evidence, someone heard a rumor of something, and there was a social media post. I don't know that the jury poll allowed us to understand what was specifically heard."

Judge Tabor said, "When you try the case in a small community, how does this work in a practical matter? If we throw out a verdict based on a rumor, how can we ever have a jury trial in our small communities?"

Spies provided examples from the records of what jurors said they heard and when they heard it.

Chief Judge Danilson said, "We don't know what went on when the jury considered the lesser included offenses. Is not the rule in Iowa a reasonable probability that outside influence had an effect on the verdict? We do not know the exact nature of what was heard."

Judge McDonald said, "The jury foreman polled the other jurors about whether they were afraid to go to their cars after the verdict without accompaniment by law enforcement. They knew they were going to make someone mad with their verdict; it was, and these trials always are a tense environment."

Judge Vaitheswaran said, "To say the jury reached the verdict of second degree murder under duress seems vague and non-specific. No juror said, 'I violated the mandate to not view any media; I got on Facebook, I talked with my granddaughter, I talked out in the community.'"

Spies said, "The timing is very important. The jurors left the jury room to go home [after stopping deliberations the night of June 30, 2016] but it was before they left the courthouse. Judge [David] Lester said he was troubled by what seemed to be the disregard of his admonition. He was clear and unmistakable. Where outside influence played a part, the test is met. Whether there was objective influence is an objective test."

Kelli Huser, on behalf of the State Attorney General's Office, said, "In situations like this, we only have a backward look at what happened. This will probably be an issue as long as social media remains popular."

Huser said the standard is whether the media or the outside threats of civil violence could reasonably be found to have an effect on the typical juror.

The judges said their written ruling will be issued as soon as possible. The oral arguments that began promptly at 1:30 p.m. ended at 2:08. The case of Pinky, a pit bull type dog removed from the city of Des Moines, followed.



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