State v. Bowers, 2020 Iowa App. LEXIS 283 (IA Ct. App. 2020)
Court of Appeals of Iowa
March 18, 2020, Filed
These events involve an ongoing acrimonious relationship between two young men who shared an interest in the same woman, who at various times dated each of them. In the particular event, after the two men had an exchange of words, the Victim was sitting on the rear bumper of a pickup truck when the Defendant sped his own vehicle at the truck. Witnesses would testify that it was only because the Victim jumped out of the way that the Victim was not crushed between the Defendant’s vehicle and the truck.
After apparently attempting to crush the Victim, the Defendant emerged from his own vehicle with a knife in hand. The Victim landed the first blow, striking the Defendant in the head hard enough to knock the Defendant to his knees. Witnesses would then see the Defendant repeatedly “punching” the Victim—in fact, the Defendant was repeatedly stabbing the victim, including once in the heart, fatally.
The Defendant was charged with first-degree murder for the killing of the Victim, and the Defendant raised the legal defense of self-defense.
The jury ultimately convicted the Defendant of the lesser included offense of voluntary manslaughter.
The Defendant appeals his manslaughter conviction on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel—specifically, that his counsel had been ineffective for not making a motion for acquittal at trial based on his justification defense.
In a trial, if there is literally zero evidence to counter innocence—for example, if there is zero evidence on one of the required elements of the criminal charge, or the evidence of self-defense is absolute—the defense can request that the judge simply acquit the Defendant without the matter ever going to trial.
The idea is that in such a case there is no way for a rational jury to arrive at a guilty verdict, so there’s no sense leaving the decision up to them, just have the judge make the call for acquittal.
Here the court of appeals notes that the State prosecutors had plenty of evidence that countered the Defendant’s claim of self-defense. The court also noted the five elements of self-defense, and the legal reality that the prosecutors had to disprove only any one of those elements beyond a reasonable doubt. In fact, several of the elements were readily subject to disproof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Under those circumstances, the Defendant’s attorney was not ineffective for failing to request a judgment of acquittal where such a request would certainly have been appropriately denied by the trial judge.
The Defendant’s conviction for voluntary manslaughter was affirmed.
This case provides an opportunity to note the distinction between murder and manslaughter, and why manslaughter is a lesser included offense of murder.
Murder is unlawful killing with intent. Manslaughter is essentially an unlawful killing without intent. There are two distinct forms of manslaughter, each lacking intent for different reasons.
Involuntary manslaughter is when there is no intent to cause anyone harm, but the person acts in a way that creates a reasonably foreseeable risk of death, and an actual death results. A good example would be someone driving home drunk from a bar, who runs someone over and kills them. That person did not intend to kill anyone, but they engaged in conduct that created a reasonably foreseeable risk of death and someone died as a result.
Voluntary manslaughter is when there is an intent to cause harm, but the law deems the circumstances to be such that the killer could not reasonably have formed an intent to kill. Alternatively, the law says that although the killer had the intent to kill, that intent was the result of “sufficient provocation,” and thus should be distinguished from cold-blooded murder.
A good example would be the person who comes home to find their spouse in bed with another person. Enraged, the person whips out a gun and kills one or both of them. The circumstances can be said to have “sufficiently provoked” the killer to such an extent that he could not form a reasonable intent to kill, and thus such a killing should be distinguished from cold-blooded murder.
Often what happens, as here, is that a Defendant is charged with murder, and the defense will argue that, OK, we killed the Victim, but instead of convicting my client of murder you should recognize that there existed “sufficient provocation” and that my client is therefore really only guilty of the lesser included charge of voluntary manslaughter.
In this case the “sufficient provocation” would be the love interest for the same woman, and although the jury rejected the perfect defense of self-defense they did accept the mitigation defense of voluntary manslaughter.
2020 Iowa App. LEXIS 283
STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee, vs. BRAEDON STEVEN BOWERS, Defendant-Appellant.
Martha J. Lucey, State Appellate Defender, and Theresa R. Wilson, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.
Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Louis S. Sloven, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.
Considered by Doyle, P.J., and Tabor and Schumacher, JJ.
The State charged Braedon Bowers with murder in the first degree in the stabbing death of Wraymond Todd. A jury convicted Bowers of the lesser included offense of voluntary manslaughter. He appeals that conviction, contending his trial counsel was ineffective for not arguing he was entitled to judgment of acquittal based on justification. Because the State presented sufficient evidence to disprove justification, Bowers cannot show prejudice. We thus affirm Bowers’s voluntary manslaughter conviction.
I. Facts and Prior Proceedings
A frantic caller told the 911 operator: “Wraymond got stabbed in the heart. We need an ambulance right now.” The caller added: “Braedon stabbed him.” As defense counsel told the jury in opening statements, the May 2017 stabbing was never a “whodunit.” Rather, the key question was whether Bowers killed Todd in self defense.
The bad blood between Bowers and Todd began with a young woman, T.B. At different points in time, T.B. maintained a romantic relationship with each of them. Tragically, in the fall of 2014, T.B. lost her son to SIDS. Five days before the stabbing, Bowers insulted T.B. in a text message, writing that her son’s death was “karma” and “Karma is a bitch.” The text angered T.B., who shared her feelings with Todd. Todd responded: “[I]f you want Braedon beat up, let me know. You can’t keep letting him talk to you like that.”
On May 30, Todd, T.B., and others gathered at the home of Bowers’s mother to help her haul trash to the landfill. They parked two pickups in the driveway to fill with garbage. Bowers stopped by early that afternoon and asked Todd and T.B.: “Why are you here? Why don’t you get your own mom?” Bowers then left, angry. But he came back about ten minutes later.
When Bowers returned, Todd was sitting on the second pickup’s back bumper. T.B. recalled Bowers speeding toward that pickup-“It seemed he almost hit Wraymond. Wraymond then jumped over the [oncoming] vehicle to stop himself from being hit.” Another witness believed Bowers’s car would have crushed Todd if he hadn’t jumped onto the hood of Bowers’s car. When Bowers parked and opened the car door, T.B. saw a knife in his hand.
Todd landed the first blow, striking Bowers in the head. Bowers dropped to his knees and then “started throwing punches” at Todd, according to another witness. Onlookers tried to intervene to break up the fight. By then, Todd was lying on the ground, bleeding. Bowers fled the scene.
Todd-who was twenty-three years old-died at the hospital five days later. Bowers-who was twenty years old-faced first-degree murder charges, filed in June 2017. In May 2018, Bowers notified the court of his intent to rely on the defense of justification.
The murder prosecution went before a jury in August 2018. In its opening statement, the State contended Bowers “ambushed” Todd. To counter, the defense attorneys asserted Bowers acted with justification, or, at a minimum, responded to serious provocation from Todd. The jury accepted that second line of defense and returned a verdict of voluntary manslaughter. See Iowa Code § 707.4 (2017). Bowers appeals.
II. Scope and Standards of Review
We review ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims de novo. State v. Lilly, 930 N.W.2d 293, 298 (Iowa 2019) . But when the defendant contends counsel was ineffective for failing to move for judgment of acquittal on a certain ground, that contention implicates the question whether such a motion would have been meritorious, which turns on the sufficiency of evidence. Id. We review sufficiency-of-the-evidence claims for corrections of errors at law. Id.
Bowers contends the State failed to offer sufficient proof to overcome his justification defense. Bowers acknowledges counsel did not argue justification as part of the motion for judgment of acquittal.  But he claims counsel was ineffective for not doing so.  To succeed, Bowers must prove by a preponderance of the evidence counsel failed to perform an essential duty and that failure prejudiced his case. See Strickland v. Washington, 488 U.S. 668, 687 (1984).
Bowers cannot show he was prejudiced by counsel’s omission when moving for judgment of acquittal because the State presented ample evidence to counteract his justification defense. See State v. Crone, 545 N.W.2d 267, 273 (Iowa 1996) (rejecting claim counsel was ineffective for failing to challenge certain elements in motion for judgment of acquittal when record revealed sufficient evidence).
A defendant cannot prevail on a self-defense claim if the State proves any of these elements: (1) the defendant started or continued the incident which resulted in death, (2) an alternative course of action was available to the defendant, (3) the defendant did not believe he was in imminent danger and the use of force was unnecessary, (4) the defendant did not have reasonable grounds for the belief, or (5) the force used was unreasonable. State v. Shanahan, 712 N.W.2d 121, 134 (Iowa 2006).
Here, the State offered evidence Bowers started the violent confrontation by trying to crush Todd against the truck’s bumper. A reasonable fact finder could also determine from the State’s evidence that Bowers had an alternative course of action available-leaving the scene in his car. Beyond that initial foray, as the State contends, “The biggest problem with Bowers’s challenge is that he brought a knife to a fistfight-he used lethal force without any indication that he faced danger that made it reasonably necessary to stab Todd.” See State v. Hall, No. 15-0628, 2016 WL 2748358, at *4 (Iowa Ct. App. May 11, 2016) (finding “jury was entitled to conclude from the evidence that Hall escalated the level of force beyond what was reasonable under the circumstances”). The evidence the State offered amply shows the force Bowers used under the circumstances was unreasonable. On this record, Bowers cannot show he was prejudiced by counsel’s handling of the motion for judgment of acquittal. We find no basis to disturb the jury’s verdict.
In addition, Bowers maintains he was prejudiced by counsel’s failure to argue the instructions mistakenly informed the jury that justification was not a defense to involuntary manslaughter. But because the State disproved his justification defense beyond a reasonable doubt, he suffered no prejudice from excluding that defense from the jury’s consideration of the lesser included offense of involuntary manslaughter.
- In moving for judgment of acquittal, defense counsel argued the State had not proven the elements of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, or attempted murder. Counsel did not mention justification in his motion to the court. But in his closing argument, counsel told the jury, “[Y]our starting point is voluntary manslaughter. . . . But I’m not asking you to find him guilty of voluntary manslaughter. What I’m telling you is he was justified.”
- We often preserve such claims for postconviction-relief proceedings. See Statev. Tompkins, 859 N.W.2d 631, 637 (Iowa 2015). But, for now, we may address them on direct appeal when the record is adequately developed to do so. Id. Our supreme court decided recent amendments to Iowa Code section 814.7 (prohibiting resolution of ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims on direct appeal) apply only prospectively and do not apply to cases, like this one, pending on July 1, 2019. See State v. Macke, 933 N.W.2d 226, 228 (Iowa 2019).