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Iowa Supreme Court orders new corporal punishment trial

mom and dad tattoo on arm and child's hand
Sometimes the Courts are required to intervene in a parent-child relationship. The Court examines some of the more technical aspects of the intent that is required to commit an assault against your own child.

The Iowa Supreme Court today in State v. Benson ordered a new trial in a corporal punishment case holding the trial judge’s instructions confused the jury on whether the defendant needed to have a specific purpose, or, “specific intent,” in mind when he allegedly spanked his fiancé’s children with a wooden broomstick handle. The Court held that the jury needs to find such a specific purpose in order to convict the defendant of assault.

The case reflects nearly two decades of controversy between the Iowa legislative and judicial branches, which have each proclaimed assault as a general and specific intent crime, respectively. Justice Susan Christensen, sworn in just two months ago, authored the opinion for the court upon further review from the Iowa Court of Appeals. The opinion reiterates the Supreme Court’s position that assault is a specific intent crime-- even though the Legislature attempted to instruct courts that assault is a general intent crime without changing the actual elements of the offense. Coincidentally, the Court also found child endangerment, a companion charge in the case, is a general intent crime. The problem in the jury trial, wrote Justice Christensen, is that the trial judge didn’t tell the jury which type of intent was required for each charge.

The decision explained that specific intent crimes require the jury to weigh the defendant’s purpose in committing the offense separately from the act itself. It summoned the federal court’s distinctions between general and specific intent crimes noting that general intent crimes require mere knowledge of a defendant’s own acts not a specific purpose in mind while committing them.

The opinion found that the companion charge in the case, child endangerment— requiring that someone having custody of a child to a substantial him or her to a substantial risk of harm—doesn’t require that the person caring for the child specifically intend some harm to come to the children. Therefore, the court found that child endangerment is a general intent crime requiring only knowledge of the acts that subject the child to substantial risk of harm. It’s not clear from the Benson decision whether the defendant must also have knowledge of the inherent risk involved.

During the trial for the Benson defendant, the judge gave the jury instructions for both general intent and specific intent crimes—and the Iowa Supreme Court found that these were accurate statements of the law— but that the trial judge did not direct jurors to specifically find that the defendant had a purpose in mind when he assaulted the children in order to be convicted. The jury was left to its own devices without the distinction in the instructions.

Separately, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him at trial. According to the opinion, and viewing the evidence most favorably to the verdict, the Court found that sufficiency of the evidence wasn’t an issue in the case.

However, the Court reversed and remanded for a new trial on both charges because of the prejudicial nature of the court’s failure to properly instruct the jury.

NOTE: David A. Cmelik Law PLC had no involvement in the Benson decision.

If you or a loved one have been arrested for OWI (DUI) or other criminal offense in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, or other Iowa community, contact David A. Cmelik Law PLC for a free initial consultation.

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