A Tama County prosecutor, in an appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, says 6th Judicial District Judge Mitchell Turner “abused his discretion and manipulated the trial record” by overturning a jury’s conviction of Tait Purk and granting him a new trial.
Tama County Attorney Brent Heeren, in the appeal filed Wednesday, said Turner substituted his judgment in place of that of the jury, which found Purk guilty of first-degree murder in May. Both the prosecution and defense are entitled to a fair and impartial jury but the court’s ruling on the new trial “was so full of legal contortions and twists that the actual trial proceeding is unrecognizable” he argues.
Heeren points out Turner said the three crucial witnesses for the state were not credible and lacked corroboration, but the judge doesn’t include Purk’s testimony, which corroborates much of the testimony from the three witnesses. Heeren said Turner “cherry-picked” evidence to back up his ruling.
The prosecution at trial argued Purk killed his former fiancée Cora Okonski, 23, on April 16, 2000, after the two argued about their upcoming wedding that Purk wanted to postpone due to money issues.
Two witnesses testified in the May trial that Purk confessed to killing his girlfriend — not knowing her name — and one witness testified Purk killed Okonski by “choke slamming” her and breaking her neck that day.
The defense argued there was no evidence that Purk killed Okonski and her body has never been found to prove she is even dead.
Included in Heeren’s 54-page appeal is a Gazette article published last month with comments from the jury foreman and two other jurors in the Purk trial, who were “perplexed and confused” over the judge’s decision to toss out their guilty verdict.
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There also is a transcript attached to the appeal of an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent’s interview with Ben Macumber, the jury foreman, who sent an email to the Iowa Attorney General’s Office expressing his disappointment and concern about Turner’s ruling. The office referred it to the DCI.
The jurors told the Gazette earlier this month they didn’t understand Turner’s reasoning about the credibility of the three critical witnesses. They found all three credible and even Purk’s testimony, they said, corroborated the others’ testimony. The jurors said they never doubted their verdict.
Turner, in his Aug. 14 ruling, said the jury’s verdict is contrary to the evidence and based on a lack of evidence presented at trial. The prosecution relied on circumstantial evidence without a “shred of forensic evidence, eyewitness testimony or other direct evidence that Purk killed her,” the judge said in throwing out the verdict and ordering a new trial.
Macumber, an Amana school principal — which Heeren cites in his appeal argument — told the agent that the jurors asked the judge some questions but said the comments they made didn’t undermine their confidence in the verdict and didn’t indicate they were questioning the credibility of the three witnesses, according to the agent’s transcript.
The transcript also says Macumber didn’t understand why Turner brought up James Lambert, Okonski’s ex-boyfriend, to them after the verdict was issued. Turner asked, “What did you think about James Lambert?” according to the transcript. Macumber wondered at the time if Turner knew something they hadn’t been told.
Lambert, who wasn’t a witness at trial, wasn’t discussed in jury deliberations because nobody thought he was a suspect, Macumber told the agent. He didn’t think the defense ever made a “big deal” about Lambert or provided information as to how he may have been involved in Okonski’s death.
After reading Turner’s ruling, Macumber told the agent he thought Turner already had drawn conclusions about Lambert before meeting with the jury and then he “intentionally invited jury members to make comments in line with his conclusions.”
Turner, in his ruling throwing out the verdict, questioned why authorities hadn’t pursued Lambert as a suspect because there had been testimony that he had threatened Okonski and her parents in the past.
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Heeren also pointed out in the appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court that Turner, in overturning the jury’s verdict, essentially provided Purk with a bench trial, even if he didn’t ask for one. Prospective jurors were carefully questioned during jury selection to make sure a lack of physical evidence and the fact that the homicide happened in 2000 didn’t hinder a guilty verdict, Heeran said, but the prosecution didn’t have the same opportunity with “respect to preconceived notions” of the judge, he added.
On Tuesday this week, Purk waived his right to have his new trial before a jury but rather chose to have a judge hear the case, which would mean Turner would determine Purk’s guilt or innocence in the second trial.
If the Iowa Supreme Court doesn’t accept the appeal, Purk’s new, non-jury trial will start Nov. 11 in Tama County District Court.
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