Attorney for Mark Becker Argues for New Trial
By Trish Mehaffey, Reporter
DES MOINES, Iowa An attorney for Mark Becker, who was convicted of killing legendary Iowa high school football coach Ed Thomas in 2009, argued Thursday before the Iowa Supreme Court that Becker should be granted a new trial based on errors in jury instructions regarding the insanity defense.
Iowa Assistant Appellate Defender Martha Lucey said the jury instructions at Becker's 2010 trial for first-degree murder didn't contain the statutory language of the Iowa code to correctly define insanity.
Iowa Assistant Attorney General Darrel Mullins argued the instructions given conveyed the Iowa code and provided the jury with a definition.
The justices heard Thurday's oral arguments at Drake University Law School, as part of the school's 75th annual Supreme Court Celebration.
Lucey said the jury instructions didn't include the language "diseased or deranged condition of the mind," when explaining insanity. The jury instruction says the defendant must prove he didn't have "sufficient mental capacity," which isn't the same and mental capacity wasn't defined in the instructions.
Lucey said the two are not synonymous. "Diseased or deranged condition of the mind" means mental illness, disorder or disease. Mental capacity is a broad term that can be used in different ways. It can be used to describe intelligence or impairment due to alcohol.
"Language counts .... especially in this case," Lucey said.
Mullins argued that reading the instructions 34 and 35 together prevents any error. Instruction 34 provides the definition of insanity "a diseased or deranged condition of the mind as to make a person either incapable or knowing or understanding the nature and quality of his acts."
In Instruction 35, it explains Becker has to prove by a preponderance of the evidence his "insanity," which is "sufficient lack of mental capacity" to understand what he was doing or know what was wrong, Mullins said.
Mullins said using the phrase "mental capacity" is easier for jurors to "wrap their head around" than "diseased or deranged mind."
Justice David Wiggins said usually the elements of a statute are first and then they are explained.
"It seemed to be backward in this case," Wiggins said. "You don't have the language of the statute here."
Mullins said these instructions have been used and approved for years. The defense in this case had the burden to prove not guilty by reason of insanity and they had a chance to argue.
Lucey also argued an instruction on the consequences of a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict should have been included at trial. The defense wanted an instruction stating Becker would be committed to a state mental institution or another facility for a complete psychiatric evaluation if found insane.
Lucey pointed out the jurors asked during deliberation what would happen to Becker if they found him insane.
Chief Justice Mark Cady said a jury typically has nothing to do with punishment.
Lucey said this wasn't a punishment issue. People found guilty by reason of insanity are given treatment. The instruction should have been included to provide Becker with the constitutional right of a fair trial.
Justice Daryl Hecht said this was his principal concern because would the jury be able to find Becker not guilty by reason of insanity if they didn't know what would happen to him.
Mullins said that goes "well past" what this court has to determine. This isn't a constitutional right, it's a policy matter.
Mullins said the defense's request of telling the jurors that he would be committed for an evaluation doesn't address for how long or any security concerns.
Lucey said in her rebuttal argument that through her research Iowa nor any other court or legislature haven't been asked about including the consequences instruction but that shouldn't prevent this court from setting a precedent.
"What this comes down to is the courts have made a policy decision that affects fundamental fairness," she said.
The Iowa Court of Appeals upheld Becker's conviction last September and rejected the jury instruction arguments.
Becker, 25, shot Aplington/Parkersburg Coach Ed Thomas several times June 24, 2009, while the coach was in the weight room of the temporary high school. About 20 students were in the room and some testified during the three week trial in Butler County District Court.
Becker pleaded insanity during the trial but the jury rejected his claim. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in April 2010.