Christensen sentencing cancelled

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Hearing planned to probe jury influence

Judge David Lester has postponed sentencing for an 19-year-old Estherville man who was convicted of second-degree murder.

A new trial remains a possibility for Lee Christensen, who was convicted July 1 at the Emmet County Courthouse. A jury found him guilty of using a .45 pistol to intentionally end the life of 19-year-old Thomas Bortvit of Estherville on June 6, 2015. The two were at odds because Bortvit was dating Christensen's ex-girlfriend at the time.

Christensen's attorney, Leon Spies of Iowa City, asked for a new trail and in a separate filing, asked the court to poll the jury. The defense attorney wanted to find out if jurors 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.

In his ruling, Lester said he did not have the authority to call for a poll of the jury since the jury had already been released from its service. The judge did say he had the authority to schedule a post-trial hearing, however. Members of the jury could then be brought back by Spies as subpoenaed witnesses.

Lester would then use that testimony to determine whether or not a new trial is warranted.

"[T]he Court concludes that the scheduling of such a hearing is required under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution when so requested by the defendant," Lester wrote.

He said the post-trial hearing is warranted "even in the absence of specific evidence showing that the jury's verdict was, in fact, the result of juror misconduct or that the jury's verdict was affected by outside influences."

As part of his ruling, Lester instructed attorneys to work with the case coordinator in the 3A Judicial District to set a date for the post-trial hearing.

The Emmet County jury was able to consider first-degree murder, second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter and not guilty when they adjourned for deliberations at the end of June. Spies wanted the first-degree murder charge dropped -- with involuntary manslaughter in its place -- but Lester denied the motion at the end of testimony on Wednesday, June 29.

The jury acquitted Christensen of first-degree murder as part of the process to reach its July 1 verdict. If Lester orders a new trial, double jeopardy would apply so second-degree murder is the most serious charge he would face.

Emmet County Attorney Doug Hansen on Wednesday asked the court to order Christensen to pay $27,669.08 in restitution to the Crime Victim Assistance Division of the Iowa Attorney General's Office.

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