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Iowa Supreme Court: Allegedly false reports after guilty verdict discoverable in bid for new trial

In David Powers v. State of Iowa, an interlocutory, or, emergency, appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court during a lawsuit for a new criminal trial, a majority of justices ruled police must turn over reports wherein a detective allegedly questioned the truthfulness and inconsistency of the minor accuser’s post-trial reports against other suspects.

During a lower court’s hearing on the Police Department's motion to quash a subpoena for the reports, the accuser’s father said a detective told him that the detective believed the post-trial accusations against other suspects were false. The detective denied ever telling him or the accuser that her reports were false. However, the Supreme Court noted that reports indicated that the detective explained to her that “her story at this point did not match what both of her friends had told [the detective] about that night.”

Moreover, the Iowa Supreme Court noted that the detective testified at the hearing that he “did have doubts about the truthfulness of the claims . . . due to the inconsistencies in her story compared to those of her friends.”

The Powers defendant sought documentation of the allegedly false reports to bolster a claim that new evidence had come to light since he was convicted based on the police conclusions about her later claims.

At the lower court hearing, the Powers defendant argued that the newly discovered information about the accuser’s alleged untruthfulness and her repeated, inconsistent claims was likely to lead to admissible information on the merits of his request for a new trial.

The judge in the lower court hearing asked the police department to provide him with the requested reports and reviewed them in camera, or, secretly, without showing them to the Powers defendant. The district court found “no credible reason to believe [she] made a false report” and granted the city’s police department request to quash the subpoena for the records for use in the hearing on a new trial.

The Iowa Supreme Court noted that at no point did the accuser recant her accusation.

Justice Zager, writing for the Court, noted that its task was narrow; it was to decide “whether the investigative reports are within the scope of discovery, not whether they are admissible in his post-conviction relief proceedings.” The Court reviewed the Iowa Rules of Civil Procedure, wherein discovery is intended to “lead to admissible” information—not simply be admissible. It therefore did not address whether one witness, namely, the detective, could opine on the perceived truthfulness of another witness, the accuser.

However, the Court did opine that in a case where evidence was not “overwhelming” and where it relied almost exclusively on the accuser’s claims, her “credibility was pivotal to the State’s case,” and “any evidence undermining that credibility could only work in [the defendant’s] favor” including “similar claims of sexual abuse.” The Court held that in such cases, the “credibility of the complaining witness is dispositive” and “such evidence of [false claims] is imperative to an effective defense.”

Therefore, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision to quash the subpoena for the reports detailing allegedly false sex abuse claims, stating that “we cannot find that the district court decision to deny Powers access to the investigative reports was supported by substantial evidence.” Its ruling was based on the statutory rules of evidence and therefore it did not reach the state and federal constitutional claims posed by the appellant.

In his dissent, Justice Mansfield, joined by Justice Waterman, wrote that the claims in question, coming after the trial as they did, and merely peripheral in a speculative bid to impeach the accuser, did not sufficiently comprise newly discovered material evidence predating the jury trial that could have been used had it been known.

Justice Mansfield wrote, “[c]riminal trials have an endpoint and events that occur after trial—as opposed to new evidence about pretrial events—aren’t a basis for reopening the proceedings.”

NOTE: David A. Cmelik Law PLC had no involvement with this post conviction relief action nor appeal.

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