Public Safety

Divided Iowa Supreme Court Court opens door to do-overs on guilty pleas

Even innocent people sometimes admit guilt, justice says

(FILE PHOTO) The courtroom for the Iowa Supreme Court at the Iowa Judicial Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
(FILE PHOTO) The courtroom for the Iowa Supreme Court at the Iowa Judicial Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

A ruling from a closely divided Iowa Supreme Court ruling could upend plea agreements because now a person who already has admitted guilt will be allowed to challenge the conviction by claiming innocence.

Before this ruling, a person pleading guilty gave up the right to a trial and any claim of innocence. The only exception was if the defendant didn’t voluntarily make the plea or wasn’t aware of the consequences and penalties of pleading.

Brian Farrell, president of board of directors for the Iowa Innocence Project, said the significance of the ruling is that it’s the first time the court has recognized the “actual innocence claim” — which means an innocent person who nonetheless pleads guilty will have the right to claim innocence after the conviction, without any underlying procedural issue needed.


Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins, in the majority ruling, asks: “What kind of system of justice do we have if we permit actually innocent people to remain in prison? It is time that we refuse to perpetuate a system of justice that allows actually innocent people to remain in prison, even those who profess guilt despite their actual innocence.”

The 4-3 decision by Justices Wiggins, Daryl Hecht, Brent Appel and Chief Justice Mark Cady ruled the Iowa Constitution allows a convicted person now claiming innocence to show “by clear and convincing evidence” that no judge or jury would convict in light of all the evidence — including any newly discovered evidence.

Farrell, also a lecturer at the University of Iowa College of Law, said Iowa is one of about 14 states that allow defendants who plead guilty to later challenge the conviction based on an actual innocence claim.


The 86-page ruling vacates a court of appeals opinion that upheld a summary judgment against Jacob Schmidt, 17 at the time, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced in 2007 to seven years for assault with intent to commit sexual abuse and incest.


In 2014, Schmidt filed a post-conviction petition asking the court to vacate his conviction because he is innocent.

The 14-year-old boy who said Schmidt sexually abused him in 2006 recanted his claim. Schmidt argued the statement by the boy was new evidence.

But a Woodbury judge granted a summary judgment for the prosecution, and when the Iowa Court of Appeals upheld the ruling, Schmidt then asked for further review.


Farrell said another important aspect of this ruling is that it recognizes innocent people do plead guilty to crimes they haven’t committed for many reasons “in our plea-driven system.”

Wiggins, in the ruling, said a plea does not weed out the innocent. Rather, a plea is an agreement between prosecutor and the defendant that ‘establishes a going rate,’” he said referring to study on plea agreements.

A plea may be the “lesser of two evils” because the odds are stacked up against the defendant, the ruling contends. Innocent defendants mat plead guilty in the face of pressure from prosecutors or defense attorneys.

The court noted there were 74 plea-based exonerations in the United States in 2016.


Two justices, Thomas Waterman and Edward Mansfield, joined by Bruce Zager, wrote dissenting opinions arguing the ruling “upends Iowa law on the finality of guilty pleas,” which had been a long-standing precedent.

Waterman pointed out that 95 percent of felony cases in state and federal courts are resolved by guilty pleas. He feared that plea agreements would be jeopardized by this ruling because now prosecutors might prefer to just go to trial.


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This ruling will have “bad consequences” and possibly fewer “plea bargains,” Waterman noted.

Prosecutors will likely prefer to go to trial, victims and their families will have “renewed turmoil” years after the crime and there will be a “flood” of post-conviction relief applications, claiming actual innocence.


Iowa Judicial Branch statistics show the majority of defendants take plea agreements.

There were 18,059 felonies filed in 2017 and 12,510, or over 69 percent, were resolved by guilty pleas. Only 1.2 percent were decided by juries.

The percentage of pleas is much higher for misdemeanors. There were 47,779 misdemeanors filed last year and 39,007, or over 81 percent, resulted in guilty pleas. Only 190 —. 04 percent — were decided by a jury.

First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks wouldn’t directly comment on the ruling but said the office is reviewing it and considering options on how to ensure that actually innocent people are not convicted of crimes.

“We have no interest in prosecuting people who are actually innocent, and never have,” Maybanks added.

Maybanks said prosecutors may consider requesting that defendants waive their constitutional right to claim actual innocence as a condition of a plea agreement.

Martha Lucey, Iowa assistant appellate defender, said she doubts prosecutors will stop offering plea agreements because there is not “enough time, money and personnel” to take every case to trial.


This ruling will allow defendants pleading guilty to have the same right to challenge a conviction as the defendant who goes to trial, said Lucey, who argued Schmidt’s case to the justices.

Waterman, in the ruling, also expressed concern in allowing a recantation, as in the Schmidt case, to serve as grounds for reopening a case based on a claim of actual innocence. Waterman questioned the reliability of these recants, particularly from individuals who plead guilty to domestic abuse and then bully their victims to change their story.

Lucey noted the ruling didn’t decide the merits of Schmidt’s claim or say he should get a new trial.

The case will go back to Woodbury District Court and it will decide.

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