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Iowa appeals court overturns murder conviction

The right to an attorney in a criminal case is one of the most fundamental rights in the U.S. Constitution. Most people know that a person facing criminal charges has the right to have an attorney present during a police interrogation. But does a defendant have the right to a lawyer if, while he or she is in jail awaiting trial, police have another prisoner ask the defendant about the alleged crime?

The Iowa Court of Appeals faced this question recently and ruled that a defendant's right to an attorney was violated when another prisoner elicited statements from the defendant about the defendant's involvement in a homicide. The defendant was facing murder charges; the other prisoner had been convicted on federal drug charges and was acting as an informant in exchange for a possible reduction in his sentence.

The case arose out of the killing of an Iowa City landlord in 2009 during what police said was a botched robbery. At trial the defendant's lawyer argued the testimony of the jailhouse informant should have been suppressed and not allowed in evidence. The trial court disagreed and allowed the informant to testify. The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder. The appeals court reversed the trial court's ruling and overturned the conviction, saying the jailhouse conversation was the equivalent of a police interrogation, and the defendant's right to an attorney was violated.

The appeals court relied on other decisions, including some from the U.S. Supreme Court, which concluded a defendant may have the right to an attorney in similar situations. The cases draw a distinction between unsolicited admissions by the defendant, in which the informant is merely a passive listener, and admissions made after the informant actively tries to draw information out of the defendant. In the latter situations, courts have ruled the defendant has the right to a lawyer.

Source: The Gazette, "Appeals court rejects conviction in Iowa City landlord murder," Erin Jordan, June 10, 2015

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