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Legal experts say hate crime, murder charges likely don’t apply in fatal stabbing of Devonna Walker
In hate crimes, ‘motivating factor’ must be victim’s race
CEDAR RAPIDS — Some residents are questioning why the man arrested in connection with the fatal stabbing of Devonna Walker was not charged with murder or a hate crime.
But legal experts interviewed by The Gazette said the facts of the case, as presented in the criminal complaint, don’t fit either of those charges.
Shane Teslik, 37, of Cedar Rapids, faces charges of voluntary manslaughter, a felony, and disorderly conduct-epithets/threatening gesture, a simple misdemeanor, in the Jan. 2 stabbing death of Walker, 29, outside Teslik’s home in northeast Cedar Rapids.
A coalition of activist groups had been protesting and demanding murder and hate crime charges be filed in Walker’s slaying.
Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks said he based the charges against Teslik on the “facts of the case and the applicable law.”
Teslik, who is white, had called Walker, who is Black, an “abusive racial” slur before she “charged” at him, pushing Teslik’s wife to the ground, then striking Teslik twice in the face, before he stabbed her.
In the criminal complaint, Maybanks said Teslik “knew or reasonably should have known” the racial epithet “would provoke a violent response from Walker because Walker had previously assaulted (Teslik’s wife) and the defendant during a verbal argument on Dec. 19, 2022, and Walker was known to be a violent person.”
According to court records, Walker had convictions for assault causing bodily injury and assault of a peace officer in 2021.
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Murphy said last week that in order to charge a federal hate crime, a prosecutor would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Walker was stabbed because she was Black, not because she was attacking a man and his wife, as the complaint states.
The “motivating factor” has to be a person’s actual or perceived race, color or national origin, in order to meet the higher standard of a hate crime, Murphy said. A prosecutor would have to prove the deadly assault wouldn’t have happened but for the fact of Walker’s race.
Murphy said it comes down to the question of whether Teslik stabbed Walker because she was Black. But the facts of the case seem to indicate Teslik’s reaction seems to be a “knee-jerk” reaction to Walker lunging at and punching him, Murphy said.
Cedar Rapids police referred the case to the FBI for consideration of a hate crime charge, but the FBI turned it down because what happened didn’t meet the federal criteria.
Murphy said not many cases in the federal Northern District of Iowa meet hate crime criteria.
Past hate crimes
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tony Morfitt said he prosecuted a hate-crime case in 2016, and another prosecutor had one in 1997. Both involved crimes in Dubuque.
Morfitt prosecuted Randy Joe Metcalf, 40 at the time, for a hate crime of causing bodily injury to Lamarr Sandridge, 31, of Dubuque, based on his race. Trial testimony showed Metcalf stomped and kicked Sandridge in the head multiple times during a fight at the North Side Bar in Dubuque on June 12, 2015.
Morfitt was found guilty, the first conviction on a hate crime in the Northern District, which is the northern half of Iowa. The hate crime statute is fairly new, but there were some convictions, under a similar law, involving cross burnings in Dubuque in 1997.
During Metcalf’s trial, the owner of the bar testified Metcalf had shown him his swastika tattoo and talked about participating in those cross burnings before the brawl started.
Metcalf was sentenced to the maximum prison term of 10 years in prison.
There is no state law that applies to a hate crime that results in homicide. A charge does exist for an assault resulting in bodily injury, Chapter 708.2c, which carries a five-year prison term.
Murphy said the facts of the Jan. 2 assault seem to meet the elements of voluntary manslaughter.
According to Iowa law, voluntary manslaughter is when a person acts on a “sudden, violent and irresistible passion,” as a result of being provoked and not being able to “regain control and suppress the impulse to kill.”
“You want to charge a case you can prove,” Murphy said. “This isn’t an easy case.”
Robert Rigg, a professor of criminal law at Drake University in Des Moines, agreed. He said he understood why it might have taken some time for the county attorney’s office to make a charging decision because of the nuances in the case, with the potential for self-defense arguments.
“At this point in time, I would guess the prosecutor probably chose the highest charge he thought he could prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” Rigg said.
“You have a situation that’s obviously racially charged. So, as a prosecutor you’re going to want to go through and take your time, make sure you cross all your t’s and dot all your i’s, before you do anything, because no matter what you do, it’s going to be controversial.”
The main elements of a first-degree murder charge are premeditation, deliberation and specific intent to kill with malice aforethought.
In this case, Walker attacked Teslik and his wife before Teslik stabbed her, so it would be difficult to prove that her death was deliberate and premeditated, Rigg said.
According to the criminal complaint, Teslik had previously told Walker he would kill her if she came near his home or family, after she had assaulted him and his wife in December.
Rigg said that as a defense lawyer, he would be concerned about that statement, but proving premeditation could still be difficult, depending on when the previous assault happened and other factors.
Gazette reporter Emily Andersen contributed to this article.
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