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Court Upholds Mom's Conviction in '01 Slaying
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A court on Wednesday upheld the murder conviction of a woman in the 2001 shooting of a neighbor in her Iowa home, rejecting her claim that she acted in self-defense.
The Iowa Court of Appeals said its review of Tracey Richter's case found "substantial evidence" from which jurors could conclude her killing of 20-year-old Dustin Wehde was not justified. The 3-0 decision means Richter will continue serving a life prison term that she received after Webster County jurors convicted her in a high-profile trial in 2011.
Richter shot and killed Wehde in her home in the northwestern Iowa town of Early on Dec. 13, 2001, discharging nine bullets from two weapons. From the beginning, she maintained that she shot Wehde to protect herself and her three children after Wehde and another man invaded her home and assaulted her.
The case went unsolved for years even as authorities doubted the account of Richter, now 46. Investigators charged her in 2011 after evidence mounted, including testimony from a former friend that implicated her in Wehde's murder.
Writing for the panel, Judge Amanda Potterfield said prosecutors offered proof to support their theory that Richter killed Wehde as part of an elaborate hoax to frame her ex-husband.
Prosecutors say Wehde, the troubled son of Richter's real estate agent, was lured to Richter's home under false pretenses and forced to write in a pink spiral notebook that he'd been hired by her ex-husband to kill her and her 11-year-old son.
After Richter shot and killed Wehde with her children in the home, she planted the notebook in his car so it would be found by authorities, prosecutors say. Richter later told friend Mary Higgins that police would find the notebook and it would show her ex-husband was responsible for the home invasion, even though investigators had never publicly revealed the notebook's existence. Richter later told Higgins to forget what she said about the notebook, according to testimony.
In addition to Richter's knowledge of the notebook, the appeals court said prosecutors offered other evidence to support its theory of the case.
A rational jury could reject Richter's claim that on the night of the shooting she was choked with pantyhose because of an expert's testimony that marks on her neck "appeared to be friction burns caused by rubbing something," the court said.
Based on testimony about blood spatter, jurors also could have found that Richter shot Wehde the final time after he was already dead "to make it look like he was trying to get up and resume the attack," the court said.
And prosecutors showed Richter had a motive to frame her ex-husband because of an ongoing child custody dispute, and that she "followed through by having Wehde write fictitious journal entries in the pink notebook and by staging evidence to make it appear as if she was defending herself," the court said.
Sac County Attorney Ben Smith, who prosecuted the case with the Iowa Attorney General's Office, said the ruling affirms his view that the case "wasn't a close call" on whether Richter acted in self-defense. But he said he expected Richter to continue fighting for her release from prison for the rest of her life.
"It's great to know that another governmental entity has agreed that the evidence was overwhelming," he said. "There's more to come, but this is probably one of the bigger hurdles. I think everybody is happy. A number of people have called me today, including the victim's family and some of the witnesses. Everybody just wants to put this behind them. We're just one step closer now."
Theresa Wilson, a public defender representing Richter, said she would ask the Iowa Supreme Court to review the decision, which also rejected Richter's argument that the judge improperly limited testimony from a psychologist who diagnosed Richter with acute stress syndrome.
The court said the judge did not abuse his discretion when he barred the psychologist, David Grove, from testifying that Richter's symptoms were consistent with being the victim of a home invasion. The testimony would have "crossed the line into the realm of bolstering Richter's credibility," Potterfield wrote.
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