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  • Writer's pictureDavid A. Cmelik Law PLC

Iowa criminal lawyer explains: 4th murder appeal denied

Stanley Liggins overturned three convictions in a single Iowa murder case while in prison resulting in four jury trials for the same criminal offense. His fourth attempt represents the final chapter in an Iowa murder case that has lasted over 30 years.

Retiring Iowa Supreme Court Justice Brent Appel authored the latest, unanimous decision, one of the jurist’s last criminal law decisions on the Court before he retires mid-July. Fitting then that this nearly final opinion should explore whether prosecutors, a deceased witness, a paid informant, and an allegedly racially motivated snitch witness all conspired to deny Liggins due process. The conversation was academic for Liggins because his conviction will stand affirmed. But the discussion is important for all criminal defendants. Here’s how it is important for you: racial animus, paid informants, jailhouse snitch witnesses, and both juror and prosecutorial misconduct matter, even if they didn’t ultimately matter for Liggins on his last try at bat.

In Liggins, the Defendant tried his murder case four times before juries. Three times, something impermissible occurred to taint the verdict. In the first case, the Iowa Supreme Court held that jurors were tainted by evidence Liggins sold cocaine to the victim’s mother. In the second attempt to convict Liggins, prosecutors improperly hid that an eyewitness was a paid informant for police. In the third case, the jury could not reach a verdict: hung jury. And in the fourth trial, the defendant finally lost on appeal, arguing unsuccessfully that jurors improperly discussed the previous deadlocked jury trial, that a dead witness’s prior trial testimony was transcribed and improperly admitted in violation of the Confrontation Clause, that paid informants should never be able to testify, and that a jail house snitch was racially motivated.

Of the jury’s discussion of previous trial outcomes, Justice Appel wrote: “Here, the improper disclosure to the jury—that there had been a prior hung jury—would not have been a shock to the jury. The jury knew that there had been prior trials as transcripts of testimony from them were read into the record.”

On the issue of a violation of the Confrontation Clause—the right of a defendant to confront his or her accuser—Liggins argued forcefully that the transcribed testimony of a previous trial witness who later died should not be admitted into evidence in the follow up trial because the prior testimony was conducted when prosecutors hid information that could have been used to impeach the then-living witness. Such confrontation would not be thorough because of the concealment, argued Liggins.

Justice Appel wrote, “[T]he real question, as suggested by Liggins, is whether the opportunity afforded Liggins’s counsel in the prior trial to cross-examine Adkins was adequate in light of the failure of the State to disclose . . . .”

Justice Appel ruled that it was adequate, that the impeachment value of the withheld reports was negligible, and that Liggins’ opportunity to cross examine the decedent was adequate, thus there was no confrontation clause problem in this case.

Liggins saved the best for last. He argued that prosecutors should never have been allowed to present the testimony of a paid informant placing Liggins at the scene of the crime and that another jailhouse snitch was motivated by racial animus when he testified Liggins admitted to the offense in jail.

Justice Appel rejected the first claim—that the paid informant should have been completely barred from testifying. Instead, Liggins had the ability to cross examine him on his police payments for information to impeach him. Afterall, police at first concealed that the informant was paid at all. The remedy was to reveal this information to the defendant and then allow its discussion to before the jury.

Justice Appel had more concern about the testimony of jailhouse informants. His analysis detailed how police agreements typically exclude discussion of the benefits of testimony so defense lawyers cannot attack them during cross examination. He further discussed the possibility that there was some kind of animus when the informant called the defendant, an African American, a “lucky boy.”

“He stated that Liggins was a 'lucky[] boy' at his first hearing on postconviction relief, a comment which suggested an aura of superiority, if not racial superiority, which Reising denies. A reasonable person might question whether a person in Liggins’s predicament would blurt out a confession in response to Reising’s identification of Liggins as a suspect in the crime in the first place. One in Liggins’s position might be concerned that Reising was a snitch, not to mention Reising did not present as a member of the church choir.”

Justice Appel quoted Chief Justice Earl Warren’s opinion in Hoffa v. United States, noting, “[T]he use of jailhouse informants had ‘a serious potential for undermining the integrity of the truth-finding process in the federal courts.’” But other than this stated concern, the opinion refused to “categorically” bar jailhouse informant testimony on due process grounds.

“While there are obvious reasons to be concerned about the reliability of jailhouse informants, until there is a more robust body of useful social science or other information to structure our consideration of the probative value or reliability of the testimony of jailhouse informants, a categorical approach to exclusion of jailhouse informant testimony is not appropriate.”

The lesson from the Liggins case? That even though Justice Appel is leaving the court in a few short weeks, this conversation need not be completely over. Defendants can still raise these issues even if Liggins was not successful.

David A. Cmelik Law PLC had no role in the Liggins case.

If you or a loved one have been charged in an Iowa criminal prosecution in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, or other Iowa community, contact us for a free initial consult.


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