June 19, 2024

Murder conviction based on jailhouse informant overturned

DES MOINES — A man convicted in the 2009 shooting death of an Iowa City apartment complex landlord must get a new trial because jurors may have relied on the testimony of a jailhouse informant who was working with police to get information, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

A split 4-3 court decision upholds the notion that information gathered by jailhouse informants violates a defendant’s rights when the informant is working on behalf of police or prosecutors to specifically elicit information about a crime.

A majority of justices concluded Justin Marshall’s Sixth Amendment right to an attorney was violated.

In Marshall’s case the court points out there was no physical evidence or eyewitnesses against him and the case centered on jailhouse informants.

One of the informants, Antonio Martin, was convicted in federal court on charges of cocaine distribution and possession of a firearm to commit drug trafficking. Martin had previously received a sentence reduction for working with federal prosecutors in drug cases.

After being placed in a cell next to Marshall in the Muscatine County jail, he convinced Marshall to write down his side of the story. In the handwritten note Marshall admitted to shooting John Versypt, the landlord of the Broadway Condominiums complex in Iowa City, but claimed it was an accident. Marshall indicated he hoped his version of events would result in a charge less serious than first-degree murder.

The case presented the challenge for the court to decide when a jailhouse informant becomes an agent of the police or prosecutors and in effect violates a defendant’s right to have an attorney present during questioning.

“As the recent work of the Innocence Project demonstrates, jailhouse informants have played a significant role in convicting innocent persons,” Justice Brent Appel wrote for the majority. He said the reliability issues associated with informants pose a particular problem as they are often used in cases in which the state has little direct evidence.

The majority of four justices concluded Martin was working on behalf of investigators in hopes of getting a more lenient sentence and worked to get Marshall to give up information about the shooting.

The court ordered the case sent back to district court for a new trial excluding Martin’s testimony.

Three justices disagreed and said Martin was not acting as an agent of the government and the conviction should be upheld. In the dissenting opinion Justice Edward Mansfield said Marshall volunteered the information to Martin.

“Where a defendant unwisely spills his guts in the presence of a third party who simply serves as a passive listener to a heartfelt confession, literally does nothing to elicit the statement, and was simply in the right place at the right time, there is very little rationale for suppressing the evidence on right to counsel grounds,” he wrote. “Jail is not a pure, pristine environment. Its occupants therefore run the risk that persons with whom they are sharing confidences may be, in common parlance, ‘snitches.’ “

A spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General’s office representing prosecutors declined to comment.

Marshall’s attorney, Kent Simmons, said his client was just 19 and the jailhouse informants who were much older and experienced in the criminal system used him to try to get lighter sentences. He said Marshall wrote down what Martin told him to write to get charged with a lesser crime.

“This is not a violent kid. He is not a killer,” Simmons said. “He truly deserves justice and the courts have now given him justice.”