Iowa Supreme Court Rejects Mark Becker Appeal in Conviction of First Degree Murder

Emily Ritchie

CEDAR FALLS – The Iowa Supreme Court dismissed an appeal brought by the man convicted of killing Parkersburg coach Ed Thomas. The appeal was made by Mark Becker, 27, who claimed that during his trial the district court did not accurately define the elements of the insanity defense as well as neglecting to instruct the jury of the consequences of a verdict not guilty by reason of insanity.

Prior to this appeal was June 24, 2009. The day that Becker shot and killed Thomas in the Parkersburg high school weight room in front of numerous other high school students. In return, he was charged with first degree murder and granted a jury trial in February of 2010. 

During trial Becker relied on the insanity defense to the charge but the jury rejected it, finding Becker guilty of first-degree murder. Following the guilty verdict, Becker was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and ordered him to pay restitution to the victim estate. Becker appealed his conviction. 

He appealed on two different claims. First, that the district court improperly instructed the jury when it submitted the Iowa State Bar Association’s jury instructions defining the elements of the insanity defense instead of the instruction Backer requested. Second, he claimed the district court violated his due process rights under the Iowa Constitution when it refused to instruct the jury as to the consequence of a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity verdict. 

The Iowa Court of Appeals reviewed his claims. 

“We review challenges to jury instructions for correction of errors at law,” the review begins. “In a criminal case, the district court is required to instruct the jury as to the law applicable to all material issues in the case. Instructions must correctly state the law, but they do not need to contain or mirror the precise language of the applicable statute.”

During Becker’s trial the district court submitted two instructions to the jury regarding the insanity defense; instructions 34 and 35. 

Instruction 34, entitled “Insanity Defense”, essentially defines a sane person. 

The review of instruction 34 states, “a person is “sane” if, at the time he committed the criminal act, he had sufficient mental capacity to know and understand the nature and quality of the act and had sufficient mental capacity and reason to distinguish right from wrong as to the particular act.” 

Instruction 35, entitled “Elements of Insanity Defense”, gives two standards to determine a person insane;

  1. “At the time the crime was committed, the Defendant did not have sufficient mental capacity to know and understand the nature and quality of the acts he is accused of; or 
  2. At the time the crime was committed, the Defendant did not have the mental capacity to tell the difference between right and wrong as to the acts he is accused of.”

The review then goes on to stating that “both these instructions substantially mirror the Iowa State Bar Association’s uniform jury instructions” and “when read together, instructions 34 and 35 accurately and fairly stated the applicable law on the defense of insanity.” 

Thus, the district court did not commit legal error when it gave instructions 34 and 35 to the jury which dismisses Becker’s first claim in his appeal. 

When reviewing Becker’s second claim in his appeal, that the court violated his due process rights, it was first explained that the jury was deadlocked and asked the court what would happen to Becker if he was found insane. 

“The court answered, “you need not concern yourself with the potential consequences of a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.” 

Becker claims that when a criminal defendant pleads not guilty by reason insanity, and requests such a consequence instruction, the due process guarantee of a fundamentally fair trial contained in the Iowa Constitutional requires the district court inform the jury that a defendant who is found not guilty by reason of insanity will be “immeadiately ordered committed to a state mental health institute or other appropriate facility for a complete psychiatric evaluation.” 

In the review, they look back on old cases and note that “instructing the jury of the consequences of a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity verdict has no historical basis in Iowa.” Essentially, no state or federal court has found the giving or not giving of a consequence instruction violates due process. Thus, the review states, “due process does not require a district court ot give a consequence instruction simply because the defendant requests it.” 

Ending the review with the disposition, the court ruled that “Bekcer’s appeal on this ground is without merit… Becker’s conviction is affirmed.” 

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