IOWA CITY — A judge ruled today the trial of Lamar Wilson, accused of fatally shooting a man at the Ped Mall in Iowa City, will go forward later this month and he will reserve ruling on whether Wilson is immune from prosecution until a jury reaches a verdict.
Sixth Judicial District Judge Paul Miller reset Wilson’s first-degree murder trial to Nov. 27 in Polk County District Court. He previously ruled to move the trial out of Johnson County based on extensive pretrial publicity.
Miller also denied Wilson’s request for an evidentiary hearing — or “mini-trial” — to determine if Wilson, who is using the “stand your ground” defense, was justified in using deadly force when he fatally shot Kaleek Jones, 23, and injured two others on Aug. 27 and is therefore immune from prosecution.
Miller, instead, said he will obtain a verdict from the jury and then make a decision on the immunity issue. He is basing this on a similar procedure used in a 1989 case, State v. King, that the Iowa Supreme Court upheld.
Wilson is charged with first-degree murder, two counts of attempted murder, three counts of intimidation with a dangerous weapon and criminal gang participation. Jones died as the result of a gunshot wound to his back and neck.
Miller said in the ruling he reviewed other states’ “stand your ground” cases and in each of these the courts held evidentiary hearings on requests to dismiss based on grounds of immunity. However, in these states, the statutes specifically provide for immunity from “criminal prosecution,” not “criminal liability,” which is the language in the Iowa law.
Other states also have developed procedures on how to apply immunity provisions but Iowa hasn’t at this time, Miller added.
John Bruzek, Wilson’s lawyer, argued earlier this week that deadly force may be used “when defending against an imminent threat of deadly force, or the actual use of deadly force by an assailant,” according to Iowa law. Bruzek said the legislators knew the intent of the law would grant immunity from prosecution and they did it to “prevent abuse by prosecutors.”
Assistant Johnson County Attorney Rachel Zimmermann Smith asked the judge Thursday to read the entire statute of the law and look at the plain meaning of the language. The law only grants immunity for criminal or civil liability for “all damages incurred by the aggressor.” She said the statute refers to criminal liability for all financial damages, not “immunity from prosecution.”
Miller said he reviewed the video of the lawmakers debating the law earlier this year, as requested by the prosecution and defense but the video offers no clear guidance on the immunity provision.
Miller pointed out in the ruling that handling the issue this way will result in witness testimony and examination in one proceeding — a trial — rather than two separate proceedings. This will allow a jury to reach a verdict and the court will still make its own ruling on the immunity question.
“This lessens the possibility of having to retry the case in the event of an appellate ruling finding fault with the trial court proceedings,” Miller said.
Neither the prosecution nor defense will be prejudiced and both sides will have the chance to question witnesses and present argument in the same way as an evidentiary hearing, Miller said.
If there was a separate evidentiary hearing, it would give the defendant an opportunity to obtain a preview of the prosecution’s case against him, which could lead to abuse of using the new law’s immunity provision by other defendants in the future, Miller added.
If convicted of the murder charge, Wilson faces life in prison without parole.
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