Christensen new trial decision expected 'early next week'

Friday, September 9, 2016
PHOTO BY MATT HEINRICHS / Judge David Lester heard arguments from defense attorney Leon Spies and Iowa Assistant Attorney General Coleman McAllister on Friday. Spies thinks juror misconduct and misleading testimony led to his client's second-degree murder conviction on July 1.

Judge David Lester told attorneys that he will decide early next week whether Lee Christensen will stand trial for second-degree murder.

The judge was back in the Emmet County Courthouse on Friday to consider post-trial motions submitted by Christensen's defense attorney Leon Spies. The Iowa City attorney thinks juror misconduct and two specific moments of expert testimony prevented Christensen from getting a fair trial.

Christensen was found guilty of using a .45 pistol to intentionally end the life of 19-year-old Thomas Bortvit of Estherville on June 6, 2015.

Jury selection began for the first-degree murder trial on Tuesday, June 21. Jurors reached their second-degree murder verdict -- following 10 hours of deliberations -- on July 1.

Prosectors won't be able to pursue a first-degree murder charges even if Lester orders a new trial.

"He's been acquitted of first-degree murder, so under our constitutional requirements of double jeopardy he would only be able to be tried for murder in the second degree," Iowa Assistant Attorney General Coleman McAllister said.

Lester took notes as Spies made a motion for a new trial in part because one of McAllister's questions to an expert witness violated Christensen's presumption of innocence. Spies successfully objected to the question during the trial. He then asked for a mistrial because the jury may have been influenced by the improper question.

He also said testimony from one of the crime scene investigators included a "parade of untruths," including questions about whether a metal detector was used in the area of the crime scene. Christensen shot Bortvit near a series of outbuildings in rural Estherville. Bortvit was dating Christensen's ex-girlfriend at the time.

Spies also wanted the jury polled about whether or not they read speculation posted on a local reporter's Facebook page between day one and day two of deliberations. The social media entry suggested that Estherville residents would "riot" if the jury failed to convict Christensen of first-degree murder.

Jurors were instructed to avoid trial-related conversations, social media and news coverage during the case, but Spies is concerned jurors saw the conjecture and produced a conviction to avoid civic unrest.

Members of the jury were escorted to their cars following the July 1 verdict.

Spies also had concerns about possible comments made by Juror No. 18. The juror spent her lunch with family members and told them she already felt Christensen was guilty.

"I have no reason to believe that they ignored the court's admonition," to avoid discussion or coverage of the case, McAllister said. "In fact, I would say that they did honor the admonition. During the course of the trial we actually had a juror who asked to talk to the judge and the attorneys because she had been exposed to a Facebook page and she brought it to the court's attention. So, it appeared to me, at least that they were faithful and understanding of their responsibilities. I have no evidence or reason to believe that they weren't."

Unless Lester orders a new trial, Christensen will be sentenced at 9:30 a.m. Friday, Sept. 16, at the Emmet County Courthouse.

"It's up to the judge, but I'm confident that it was a fair trial and we'll be proceeding to sentencing next week," McAllister said.

The second-degree murder charge carries a prison term not to exceed 50 years. Christensen must serve at least 35 years in prison before he's considered for parole.

If the 19-year-old serves the minimum amount he'll be 54 years old before he is released. If he warrants the maximum amount of time, he will be 69.

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