An appeal filed last month by a Tama County prosecutor, who said a judge “abused his discretion and manipulated the trial record” by overturning a jury’s first-degree murder conviction of Tait Purk, was “voluntarily” dismissed Thursday.
The appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court wasn’t dismissed by Tama County Attorney Brent Heeren, who filed it, but it was the decision of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, which represents the prosecution in appeals.
The justices will not take up the appeal, according to a document filed Thursday. That officially sends the case back to the district or trial court.
Assistant Iowa Attorney General Kevin Cmelik said in his dismissal statement to the court that, “In light of the broad discretion granted the District Court to grant a new trial,” the office “exercises its authority and discretion” to voluntarily dismiss the appeal.
Cmelik, further explained in his statement that courts have wide discretion in deciding motions for new trials based on case law, which 6th Judicial District Judge Mitchell Turner also cited in his Aug. 14 ruling. The “weight of evidence standard” permits the court to consider the credibility of witnesses, he cited in the statement.
“We are slower to interfere with the grant of a new trial than with its denial,” Cmelik said in the document.
Turner, in his ruling to overturn Purk’s first-degree murder conviction, said the jury’s verdict is contrary to the weight of 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 his fiancee Cora Okonski, 23, on April 16, 2000, Turner said in tossing out the verdict and granting a new trial.
Heeren and Assistant Iowa Attorney General Laura Roan declined to comment about the dismissal, except to say the case will go forward and a status hearing is set for Wednesday in Tama County District Court. Purk’s new trial is to begin Nov. 11. For now, he remains behind bars.
Heeren also wouldn’t comment when asked how the prosecution plans to continue with a trial because Purk has waived his right to a jury trial and is asking for a bench trial, which means Turner will decide the verdict. Turner’s ruling to overturn the jury’s verdict was essentially a bench trial verdict, Heeren pointed out in his appeal. He added Turner disputed the prosecution’s entire case, including his opinion that all three of the key witnesses lacked credibility. He even disputed whether Okonski was actually dead because her body was never recovered.
The prosecution at trial argued Purk killed Okonski 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 — who he didn’t name at the time — and one witness testified Purk killed Okonski by “choke slamming” her and breaking her neck. Another witness said Okonski told her she feared Purk would kill her.
The defense argued there was no evidence that Purk killed Okonski and her body has never been found to prove she is even dead.
Heeren in his appeal said Turner substituted his judgment in place of that of the jury. 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 argued.
Heeren said Turner ruled the three crucial witnesses for the state were not credible and lacked corroboration, but he added the judge did not include Purk’s testimony that corroborates much of the testimony from the three witnesses. Heeren said Turner “cherry-picked” evidence to back up his ruling.
In August, The Gazette interviewed three jurors from the Purk trial, who said they were “perplexed and confused” over the judge’s decision to toss out their guilty verdict.
Heeren, in his appeal, included that article and also a transcript 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 in August 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.
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