U.S. Eighth Circuit - The FindLaw 8th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Judge Orders New Trial in '95 Slaying of Teen, May Reach 8th Cir.

In an unorthodox move, a federal judge has ordered a new trial for an Iowa state prisoner convicted in the brutal 1995 murder of a northwestern Iowa teenager.

While state prosecutors appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, the decision by U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett resurrects a case that ignited tensions between whites and Hispanics and led to crackdowns on illegal immigration, reports The Associated Press.

The Crime

Guillermo Escobedo, now 38, and Cesar Herrarte were convicted in the stabbing death of 19-year-old Justin Younie at a party in Hawarden and are serving life prison sentences.

Escobedo was convicted of first-degree murder, willful injury, and assault back in 1995, following a jury trial. Prosecutors presented evidence Escobedo and co-defendant Herrarte stabbed Younie and another young man with meat-packing knives after a fight broke out at a party.

The Jury Issue

When Escobedo's jury was already in deliberations, the trial judge in the case received information from a person who reported hearing a juror make racial remarks about Escobedo at a bar a few nights earlier.

After looking into the report, the judge dismissed the juror from the case. He then told Escobedo's lawyer he "intended to use" the dismissed first alternate juror, and Escobedo's lawyer responded "yes." The alternate juror was summoned and replaced the dismissed juror, and a conviction followed.

Escobedo's Appeal

On appeal, Escobedo claimed the trial court erred in substituting the alternate juror during deliberations and instead should have immediately declared a mistrial.

The Iowa Court of Appeals agreed that the district court was actually not authorized to replace a juror during deliberations, and that Escobedo would have been entitled to a mistrial after the trial court dismissed the racist juror during the deliberations.

Unfortunately for Escobedo, the court came out with a, "you snooze, you lose" ruling.

Since Escobedo's attorneys did not request the trial court to declare a mistrial -- but instead agreed to the replacement of the dismissed juror with the alternate juror -- the court ruled that Escobedo basically waived his claim of error.

The court didn't adopt the harmless error rule and instead made clear the error needed to be raised at trial.

To the court, it was too little, too late.

Bennett's Ruling

But Judge Bennett, using the clear error standard, recently ruled that Escobedo should have been granted an automatic mistrial as soon as the juror was dismissed for allegedly bragging about being racist during deliberations.

With a tabula rasa (albeit a legal fiction), a new trial is on the horizon. The goal of the new trial would be to reach a verdict that doesn't violate Escobedo's right to a fair trial and to effective assistance of counsel.

That, however, may be thwarted if the prosecutors are able to successfully appeal to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If the Eighth Circuit takes it up, the court may elucidate its application of the "clear error rule" and what exactly constitutes a waiver of an error claim.

Meanwhile, Escobedo will sit tight at Clarinda Correctional Facility.

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