In a special session Tuesday evening in Muscatine, the Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments in an appeal by Lamar Wilson, whose immunity claim under Iowa’s “stand your ground” law in an Iowa City shooting was rejected.
Wilson, of Iowa City, who fatally shot one man and seriously injured two others on the Pedestrian Mall in 2017, is asking the court for a new trial based on several claims, including the trial judge misinterpreted the “stand your ground” law.
Supreme Court justices will be in Muscatine to talk with students from seven area schools about the judicial system and the role of courts in Iowa. The Wilson appeal will be argued at 7 p.m. at Muscatine High School.
Lawyers for Wilson, 25, convicted last year of voluntary manslaughter and three other charges, said this case involves a “substantial issue of broad public importance” because the 2017 law has had inconsistent rulings from various judges across the state.
Arguments for a new trial
Melinda Nye, assistant Iowa appellate defender, asks the court to rule that section 704.13 warrants a pretrial evidentiary hearing and to resolve questions of who has burden of proof in the hearing.
Last year, Wilson asked 6th Judicial District Judge Paul Miller for a pretrial hearing to determine justification and immunity. Instead, Miller decided to wait to rule on the immunity issue until after Wilson was tried on criminal charges. Miller then decided the immunity issue based on trial evidence.
In deciding to proceed that way, Miller said Iowa’s law differs from other states in its language — it lacks a procedure to determine immunity.
He ultimately ruled that there was “undisputed” evidence and testimony presented at trial that showed Wilson “indiscriminately discharged” a gun five times into a “crowd or assembly of people on the busy and crowded downtown Iowa City Ped Mall, striking three unarmed individuals” on Aug. 27, 2017.
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Miller focused much of his ruling on the constitutionality of the law that was passed by the Iowa Legislature and enacted in July 2017, a month before the fatal shooting, as part of a sweeping gun rights bill.
The judge concluded the law was “void for vagueness.” He said there was no uniform procedure to follow and every judge possibly would interpret it differently without guidance.
Nye, in Wilson’s appeal, argues Miller was wrong in his conclusion. The immunity provision requires that it should be addressed before trial, as many other state courts have decided. Statutes throughout Iowa law providing for “immunity from criminal or civil liability” have routinely been interpreted to allow for a pretrial determination of whether immunity applies, she said.
Wilson’s right to a fair trial was violated because the procedure followed and the evidence considered by the court was insufficient, Nye said.
If the law is ambiguous, the court should look at the lawmakers’ intent, Nye said. The overall intent was to expand the rights of and enhance the protections available to lawful gun owners in Iowa. In the same legislation, several provisions were amended to change the definition of reasonable force and eliminate the duty to retreat under certain circumstances, she argues.
Adding a new section to provide immunity from criminal liability demonstrates an intent to create a remedy that wasn’t available, Nye noted.
The law doesn’t explicitly describe a procedure to follow, Nye admitted, but courts in other states with similar immunity provisions provide guidance. Wilson’s trial was “fundamentally unfair and flawed” because he had two fact-finders — jury and judge — with two burdens of proof, Nye argues. Typically, defendants don’t have prove anything — the prosecution does — but in this case Wilson had to prove he was justified and provide evidence and witnesses.
Arguments to reject the appeal
Assistant Attorney General Louis Sloven, in his argument, said this law grants “immunity from criminal or civil liability for damages incurred by the aggressor” to anyone justified in using force in self-defense. It doesn’t grant immunity from criminal prosecution.
Iowa didn’t mirror Florida’s law, as many other states did, which grants similar immunity from criminal prosecution, Sloven points out.
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Iowa lawmakers, however, passed a different version that omitted standard language from those other bills, which grant broad immunity from criminal prosecution and require immunity hearings, Sloven said. The term “criminal liability for damages” means restitution. This law “immunizes” defendants from having to pay restitution if the force is justified, he argues.
Sloven said any errors made in this case are harmless because the jury found Wilson lacked justification, beyond a reasonable doubt, when he fired his handgun into a crowd. The jury was instructed on justification under the law but the jury rejected Wilson’s defense, he noted.
According to trial testimony, Wilson fired his gun first and admitted it, Sloven said. Every witness said that Wilson initiated the confrontation with the other rival group as they passed them on the Ped Mall.
A ruling will not be made Tuesday by the justices. They will make a written opinion at a later date.
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