IOWA CITY (AP) — A federal judge has taken the rare step of ordering a new trial for a state prisoner convicted in the 1995 murder of a northwestern Iowa teenager, resurrecting a case that inflamed tensions between whites and Hispanics and prompted tougher policies on illegal immigration.
Guillermo Escobedo and Cesar Herrarte were charged with using meatpacking knives to stab 19-year-old Justin Younie to death when a fight broke out at a party in Hawarden, a small town north of Sioux City. Younie was cut so deeply that his internal organs were severed.
Escobedo and Herrarte had entered the country illegally from Mexico, and the gruesome death fueled tensions at a time when waves of immigrants were moving to Iowa for work on farms and in meatpacking plants. Gov. Terry Branstad ordered a review of state immigration policy after the slaying, and U.S. Rep. Tom Latham cited the murder on the floor of Congress in 1996 to push for a law allowing local police to help enforce immigration law.
Escobedo and Herrarte sought to move the trial out of small, overwhelmingly conservative Sioux County after extensive publicity, but a judge refused. The two men argued they had acted in self-defense after an alcohol-fueled altercation, but were convicted of first-degree murder.
The trial was overshadowed by racial tensions. Despite the judge’s admonition not to mention race, the prosecutor framed the case in his closing arguments as pitting Hispanic aggressors against “the white guys.”
A juror was dismissed during deliberations after a witness testified she was heard bragging about being racist at a bar during the trial — and that the attorneys were “idiots” for allowing her to hear the case. Herrarte’s attorney testified he heard the remaining jurors laughing when she was dismissed. Despite those facts, state courts had rejected numerous appeals in which Escobedo and Herrarte argued their trial was flawed.
But in a ruling last month, U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett granted Escobedo’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus, ruling that his constitutional right to effective legal representation was violated.
Bennett said that when the juror was dismissed, Escobedo should have been entitled to an automatic mistrial under Iowa court rules. Instead, Escobedo’s attorney was apparently unaware of that and allowed deliberations to continue with an alternate juror, Bennett said.
Bennett said Escobedo’s attorney also failed to investigate why jurors were laughing when the juror was dismissed, and whether jurors had been exposed to her biased comments.
He said that in his experience, “anti-Hispanic bias is a problem in northwest Iowa” because in almost every trial involving a Hispanic defendant, one of more possible jurors indicates a prejudice against them. Therefore, close questioning of jurors is required to ensure a fair trial, he said.
He said Escobedo’s conviction was based on “more than sufficient evidence of a brutal murder” but that wasn’t an excuse to allow his rights to be violated. A mistrial would have allowed Escobedo to again seek to move the trial, he noted.
“It is frustrating that there were opportunities to avoid the need for a very belated new trial in this case to ensure fair treatment of the defendant — and opportunities for a constitutionally sound conviction — but they were squandered,” he said.
An appeals court conceded in 1997 that Escobedo was entitled to a mistrial — but ruled that he waived that option when he consented to using the alternate juror.
Bennett said his ruling marked the fourth time in nearly 300 cases in which he had granted habeas relief to a state inmate during 19 years as a federal judge. Escobedo, now 38, will remain behind bars at the Clarinda Correctional Facility while prosecutors appeal the ruling to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
If the ruling stands, it is not yet clear whether Herrarte, 36, also would be given a new trial, attorneys said.
Sioux County Attorney Coleman McAllister said Wednesday that his office would be responsible for retrying the case if necessary. He said he would have to make sure that enough witnesses were available and evidence was preserved to secure a prosecution before moving forward.
Escobedo’s attorney, Rockne Cole of Iowa City, said it was amazing it took 18 years to fix what he called constitutional flaws in his client’s case. He praised Bennett for exercising a remedy that he said was central to the American criminal justice system.
“One of the central functions of the federal courts is to ensure the constitution is followed. That’s what happened in this case,” he said. “The question of race was a central issue in the trial. We look forward to having this case hopefully affirmed on appeal and going back to trial.”