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No new trial

Iowa Supreme Court reverses Court of Appeals grant of new trial for Christensen

June 12, 2019
Amy H. Peterson - Staff Writer ( , Estherville News

By Amy H. Peterson

Staff Writer

Friday morning, the Supreme Court of Iowa issued an opinion denying Lee S. Christensen's bid for a new trial. Christensen was convicted of murder in the second degree July 1, 2016 in Emmet County district court. Dec. 21, 2016, he was given the mandatory sentence of 50 years in prison.

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Friday's issuance of the Supreme Court opinion came four years to the day that a community-wide search for Thomas Lee Bortvit, 19, ended with the location of his body at Egeland Pit. Thursday night, family, friends and community members honored Thomas' memory with lanterns. Attendees added glowing rocks around the tree planted by fellow members of the Estherville Lincoln Central class of 2014, and loved ones wrote messages on the lanterns and released them to the sky to remember Thomas.

Wednesday evening, the Estherville Saddle Club hosted barrel races to benefit the Thomas Bortvit Memorial Scholarship fund. The event raised $304 for the scholarship that goes to an Iowa Lakes Community College student studying criminal justice. Bortvit was a criminal justice major at the college.

The Supreme Court of Iowa agreed to further review of the Court of Appeals' decision to grant Christensen a new trial. The Supreme Court announced Friday the Court of Appeals' decision is vacated and the Emmet County District Court judgment is affirmed.

The Court of Appeals found Christensen was entitled to a new trial as a result of juror misconduct and bias. The Supreme Court of Iowa disagreed, citing several reasons.

On the matter of juror misconduct, the Iowa Supreme Court found an anonymous note given to the media during the trial, which stated someone had overheard a discussion at Bud's Caf in which a specific juror made statements asserting that she would not be swayed from Christensen's guilt to be "heresay upon heresay." The Supreme Court opinion states, "In light of the record developed in this case, however, we decline to disturb the ruling of the district court."

The court noted a Facebook post on the E'ville Amy reporter page, which they pasted into the opinion in its five-paragraph entirety and stated the post shared at the outset the threats of a riot were rumors, that they were vague, and it urged against taking such action, should the rumors have validity.

The court stated the Iowa attorney general had a better argument with respect to prosecutorial misconduct coming from the trial testimony of crime scene lab tech Tara Scott, who made the statement that no one other than prosecutors had tested a specific sample in the state laboratories, including Christensen's legal team.

At that point in the trial, attorney Leon Spies asked for a mistrial, stating Scott's statement implied an obligation for Christensen to prove his innocence. Defendants are considered not guilty until convicted of a crime. The trial judge instructed the jury to disregard Scott's statement, an act the Supreme Court said made the error not so serious to require a mistrial.

The court also addressed the conflicting reports between crime scene investigators Peter Wagner and his colleagues as to whether they used a metal detector when they investigated the scene at the Don Christensen farm. The state attorney general called Wagner back to the stand after his initial testimony to provide clarification. The Supreme Court stated, "This singular event on a collateral issue does not provide the basis for a new trial."

The court stated in the summary of its lengthy opinion, "Based on our review of the record, we conclude that Christensen failed to show a reasonable probability that the verdict of the jury would have been different if the extraneous influence did not reach the jury in this case."

The court also disagreed with Christensen's claim of implied juror bias. "various members of the community were on either side of the guilt question, and through the voir dire [jury selection] process, potential jurors were stricken for cause after expressing opinions both favorable and unfavorable to ChristensenWithout an indication that a juror had such a close connection to the circumstances of the case or the community response that the juror would be unable to render a fair verdict, we cannot find that any juror or the jury was tainted by implied bias."

The Supreme Court concluded, "Perhaps given the verdict, Christensen regrets not having moved for a change of venue, but he cannot remedy the consequences of that choice through an attack on the jury that has been selected after a thorough pretrial voir dire process."

The Iowa Supreme Court is considered a court of last resort, its decision final and binding on matters of state law, like Christensen's case.



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