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STATE OF IOWA vs. PETE JASON POLSON
Pleasant Hill shooter Pete Polson sentenced to 55 years
Case Number: 15-2104
Judge: Christopher Mcdonald
Court: IN THE COURT OF APPEALS OF IOWA
Plaintiff's Attorney: n
Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Kelli Huser, Assistant Attorney
Defendant's Attorney: n
Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Bradley M. Bender, Assistant Appellate Defender
Description: On November 17, 2014, at approximately 6:30 a.m., Mark Mitchell left his
home to start his vehicle, which was sitting in the driveway. As Mitchell walked
toward his truck, he was approached by a man who pulled a gun out of his
pocket and shot Mitchell in the stomach. The man fired a second shot, but the
second bullet missed Mitchell and entered the home. Mitchell was then able to
retreat back into the house, and Mitchell’s young son called 911. The first
officers were dispatched at 6:32 a.m.
Nearby, Zachary Whitehill had just pulled over to the side of the road
because he was having difficulty seeing due to snow blowing up and freezing his
windshield wipers. Whitehill exited his vehicle, and as he was reaching for the
wiper blades, he was shot twice—once in the back and once in the neck. The
shooter then left the scene, and a concerned citizen stopped and called 911.
Whitehill reported the shooter had driven off in a green Ford Explorer with Iowa
license plates. Officers were dispatched to the second scene at 6:36 a.m.
Matthew Stephenson had stopped at the home of his children’s
grandparents in order to drop off his son’s school bag. Stephenson left his
vehicle running, and as he was returning to the truck, a number of shots—four or
five—rang out. Stephenson was able to make it into the home without being hit,
but a number of bullets missed him by mere inches. Stephenson called 911 at
6:44 a.m., and he reported the shooter was driving an older green SUV and
wearing a bright “hunting” orange sweatshirt.
Around 7:00 a.m., Trooper Brian Moses was driving in his squad car near
the location of the three shootings when he noticed a man matching the shooter’s
description wearing an orange sweatshirt and driving a green Ford Explorer. The
vehicle drove past Moses, and Moses lost sight of it for a short time. However,
he and another trooper, Andrew Klein, located, and were able to block, the
vehicle. Trooper Klein ordered the driver out of the vehicle, and he complied.
Once they had the driver, they were able to identify him as Pete Polson.
Stephenson was brought to the scene shortly thereafter, and he identified Polson
as the man who had shot at him “without a doubt.”
Officers searched the area Polson had been driving when Moses lost sight
of him, and they found a handgun in the ditch. Although there had been a
snowstorm a couple days earlier, the gun was not covered in snow. Later testing
confirmed that Polson’s DNA was on the handgun. Additionally, casings found at
each of the scenes were tested and determined to have been shot from the
recovered handgun. Polson’s orange sweatshirt was also tested, and gunshot
residue was found on it.
Later the same day, officers conducted a search of Polson’s residence. In
it, they found in excess of fifteen pounds of marijuana, as well as some
packaging materials and scales. Additionally, a couple of spoons with
methamphetamine residue were recovered.
Special Agent Matthew Clifton interviewed Polson at the police station on
the day of the shootings. When asked, Polson responded he had not used
narcotics or drugs for a couple years. Additionally, Polson said he did not feel
intoxicated at the time. Clifton testified that based on his observations of Polson
and his demeanor, Clifton believed that Polson was not intoxicated at the time.
On December 22, 2014, Polson was charged by trial information with a
number of crimes stemming from November 17. Polson was charged with three
counts of attempted murder (count I: Mark Mitchell; count II: Zachary Whitehill;
count III: Matthew Stephenson); two counts of willful injury causing serious injury
(count IV: Zachary Whitehill; count V: Mark Mitchell); one count of intimidation
with a dangerous weapon (count VI); one count of conspiracy to deliver a
controlled substance (marijuana) (count VII); one count of possession of a
controlled substance with intent to deliver (marijuana) (count VIII); and failure to
affix a tax stamp (count IX).
In early October 2015, Polson filed a notice that he intended to rely on the
defense of intoxication.
Jury orientation took place on the morning of Friday, October 9; the trial
was scheduled to start the following Monday. Then, on Friday afternoon, the
court held a hearing on Polson’s pro se motion to dismiss or substitute his
appointed trial counsel. The court stated, “I’ll go ahead and have you [Polson]
make any statements you would like, and then I’m going to have [trial counsel]
respond to that.” Polson then stated:
I just feel that [trial counsel] doesn’t have my best interests, you know. He’s dropped the ball on a lot of things. It’s all there in the affidavit. He’s—we talked about filing for certain things, and he hasn’t done it. Just, you know—and I just feel that a lot of things haven’t gone like he says they were going to and he doesn’t have my best interests, Your Honor. I don’t feel comfortable going to trial with him. So that’s it.
Polson’s trial counsel then responded:
I can tell the Court, particularly in reviewing Mr. Polson’s affidavit at the end, I have visited him at the jail more than two times, and those have been at least a couple of longer occasions. We’ve also had multiple chances to talk over the iWeb. The jail has a system set up that’s i-W-e-b to do internal communications with clients, and those are secure. So they are not recorded or maintained by the jail. We have had multiple opportunities to do that. We have filed a motion for discovery and had discovery. We have filed notice of intent to take depositions, have deposed all of the witnesses that the State has except for one that was just recently added. I don’t know if the county attorney had a chance to get that person subpoenaed, but we’ll talk about whether that is going to be an issue or not. We’ve had extensive plea negotiations on this case, with a final offer that is sitting out there that at this point Mr. Polson is not in agreement with. I’ve advised my client about what I think the likely outcome of his trial is going to be. I’ve advised—I have balanced that against what the plea offer is, and I’ve given him advice as to whether or not in my opinion he should take that, keeping in mind that it is his decision. And as ever, I will zealously advocate for him at trial if we go to trial. Trial is scheduled for Monday—or for Monday. We had had some conversation about filing a motion for change of venue. That is a strategic decision to be made by the attorney. And at times I’ve considered filing that, and we’ve talked about that, but in the end, looking at the facts of this case, getting some discussion and getting—and talking with other attorneys to get a feel from what their opinions would be, I have chosen not to file that motion for change of venue, and I haven’t filed it.
Also, we’ve talked about prospective defenses, and I filed one that I believe is most appropriate for this case, that’s a defense of intoxication. So, Judge, I am not asking to withdraw. Trial is scheduled for Monday. I think I can still try this case. I leave that up to the Court’s discretion.
The State then weighed in, indicating that it had a number of conversations with
trial counsel, that trial counsel appeared to have reviewed all reports and videos
before depositions (based on the questions counsel asked), and it resisted any
motion to continue that would be necessary if a new attorney was to be
The court then ruled from the bench.1 The court stated, “I find that you
may have some disagreements as to some strategy, but I don’t think that’s a
complete breakdown of communications.” The court also considered the
“efficiency issues,” noting the case had been pending a long time and that a lot of
work and resources had taken place to prepare for the trial that was scheduled to
begin on the next business day. The court denied Polson’s motion.
The trial began on October 12, 2015. A number of police officers,
troopers, and special agents who participated in the investigation testified,
including Trooper Moses, Trooper Klein, Special Agent Clifton, and Special
Agent Anthony Birmingham, who each had contact with Polson on November 17
and opined Polson was not under the influence when they interacted with him.
Polson’s former girlfriend testified in his defense at trial. She testified that
she knew Polson to use methamphetamine—usually with syringes. Oftentimes,
Polson would hallucinate and become paranoid after using methamphetamine; 1 The court also later filed a written ruling, reiterating and supplementing the previous ruling.
she would later report to him what he had done while he was high, and Polson
would be surprised to learn of his actions. She saw Polson on the evening of
Friday, November 14, 2014, but she left because he was talking about “partying.”
She next saw him, in passing, at the police station on November 17. She got the
impression he “seemed lost” when she saw him there. On cross-examination,
the ex-girlfriend testified she could tell when Polson was high based on his body
language; he would not be able to sit still or hold a conversation. Additionally,
she stated Polson was not able to drive well when he was high.
Billi Jo Bailey was with Polson the weekend before the shootings. She
testified she saw Polson use methamphetamine a number of times throughout
that weekend, with the last time being around 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. on November
16. Afterward, Polson was acting jealous and antsy, and he was not making any
sense; he was convinced Bailey was hiding Polson’s ex-girlfriend under her bed.
Bailey then made Polson leave her house. She testified she saw the
methamphetamine before he ingested it and it looked the same as other
methamphetamine; Bailey also used methamphetamine that night, and she did
not have an atypical reaction. After the shootings, police officers questioned
Bailey, and she told them she and Polson had ingested marijuana on November
16. She first mentioned they had used methamphetamine approximately one to
two months before the trial. Additionally, when asked, Bailey testified Polson
was a “horrible driver” when he was high; he would drive fast and erratic, just like
Polson testified in his own defense. He stated he was “slamming”
methamphetamine—injecting it with a syringe—throughout the weekend before
the shootings. He ingested methamphetamine the final time around midnight on
the morning of November 17. He “knew right then something was wrong” and “it
didn’t even taste like dope.” According to Polson, the next thing he remembers
after injecting methamphetamine is cops being all around him. He testified he
could not and did not form the specific intent to harm anyone. He has a
“splotchy” memory of the next three or four days; he remembers being placed in
a police vehicle after he was apprehended, but he does not remember being
asked at the station if he had been using drugs, and he does not remember
calling his ex-girlfriend from jail and telling her it was all a “big misunderstanding”
and he “can beat this shit.”
The case was submitted to the jury on Friday, October 16. On October
21, the jury returned with its verdict. The jury found Polson guilty of count I and
counts IV-XI, as charged. As to counts II and III, the attempted murder of
Whitehill and Stephenson, respectively, the jury found Polson guilty of the lesser
included offense of assault with intent to inflict serious injury.
On December 9, Polson was sentenced to a term of incarceration not to
exceed fifty-five years.
II. Standards of Review.
We review the district court’s denial of Polson’s request for substitute
counsel for an abuse of discretion. See State v. Tejada, 677 N.W.2d 744, 749
We review challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence presented at trial
for correction of errors at law. State v. Meyers, 799 N.W.2d 132, 138 (Iowa
2011). In doing so, we examine the evidence in the light most favorable to the
State to determine if the finding of guilt is supported by substantial evidence in
the record. Id.
As here, when a defendant claims the district court should have granted
his motion for new trial based on a claim the verdict was contrary to the weight of
the evidence, we review for an abuse of discretion. See State v. Nitcher, 720
N.W.2d 547, 559 (Iowa 2006). We do not decide anew the underlying question
of whether the verdict is against the weight of the evidence. State v. Reeves,
670 N.W.2d 199, 203 (Iowa 2003).
Because claims of ineffective assistance stem from a defendant’s
constitutional right to counsel, we review such claims de novo. See State v.
Clay, 824 N.W.2d 488, 494 (Iowa 2012).
A. Substitute Counsel.
Polson maintains the district court abused its discretion when it denied his
motion to substitute appointed counsel one business day before trial was
scheduled to start. In his pro se motion for new counsel, Polson claimed his trial
counsel had multiple murder trials he was trying and had “little or no time for
[Polson’s] case,” had not filed for a change of venue, had filed for an intoxication
defense instead of a diminished capacity defense—as Polson wanted, and had
rarely met with Polson. He also claimed counsel “failed to investigate, fail[ed] to
file pretrial motions to preserve evidence, interview witnesses, and to retain
expert witnesses on psychotropic drugs and their effects.”
While the Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the right to counsel, it
does not guarantee “a meaningful relationship between an accused and his
counsel.” Morris v. Slappy, 461 U.S. 1, 19 (1983). Rather, in cases where a
defendant is represented by a court-appointed attorney and requests substitute
counsel, the defendant must present “sufficient cause to justify replacement” to
the court. Tejada, 677 N.W.2d at 749. “Sufficient cause includes ‘a conflict of
interest, irreconcilable conflict, or a complete breakdown in communication
between the attorney and the defendant.’” State v. Lopez, 633 N.W.2d 774, 779
(Iowa 2001) (citation omitted). Additionally, the court must balance “the
defendant’s right to counsel of his choice and the public’s interest in the prompt
and efficient administration of justice.” Id. (citation omitted). “The court should
not permit a defendant to manipulate the right to counsel to delay or disrupt the
trial.” Id. “[T]he court has considerable discretion in ruling on a motion to
substitute counsel made on the eve of trial.” Id.
Here, the court set a hearing on Polson’s pro se motion within a day of
receiving it. At the hearing, the court gave Polson the opportunity to “make any
statements [he] would like.” Many of the statements made by Polson were
general in nature—claiming his attorney “dropped the ball on certain things” and
“a lot of things haven’t gone like he says they were going to.” A number of
Polson’s complaints appeared to be based on disagreement over strategic
decisions. Other complaints—that his attorney had not investigated, filed pretrial
motions, or interviewed witnesses—were just inaccurate. As such, the district
court found, “I find that you may have some disagreements as to some strategy,
but I don’t think that’s a complete breakdown of communication.” We agree.
While Polson and his trial counsel were not in complete agreement, there is no
indication there had been a complete breakdown in communication between the
two. Cf. Tejada, 677 N.W.2d at 752 (“As a general matter . . . to prove a total
breakdown in communication, a defendant must put forth evidence of a severe
and pervasive conflict with his attorney or evidence that he had such minimal
contact with the attorney that meaningful communication was not possible.”
(quoting United States v. Lott, 310 F.3d 1231, 1249 (10th Cir. 2002))).
Moreover, trial was scheduled to begin one business-day later, and the
jury panel had already had orientation and completed the jury questionnaire.
Allowing Polson to substitute counsel would have undoubtedly disrupted and
delayed the judicial process. “Trial court discretion is often accorded where,
because of proximity to the trial process, the trial court is in as good or better
position than the appellate court to make a determination in accordance with the
demands of justice. State v. Gartin, 271 N.W.2d 902, 910 (Iowa 1978).
Polson also contends that he did not engage in a meaningful colloquy with
the district court, and he was not provided the opportunity to show sufficient
cause for the substitution of counsel. He maintains the district court should have
made “a proper inquiry” into his concerns, and he compares his facts to those of
Tejada. Polson does not elucidate what a “proper inquiry” entails, but we
understand his claim to be that the district court should have asked him more
specific questions about his complaints. Tejada does not proscribe what the
court’s inquiry must look like; it just requires the court to make one once a
defendant requests substitute counsel. 677 N.W.2d at 750 (“[W]e . . . now
explicitly recognize that there is a duty of inquiry once a defendant requests
substitute counsel on an account of an alleged breakdown in communication.”).
Additionally, in State v. Lopez, 633 N.W.2d 774, 779–81 (Iowa 2001), our
supreme court was asked to determine if the inquiry the court made after the
defendant requested new counsel “was adequate.” The supreme court noted the
trial court had “inquire[d] of defense counsel as to whether he had adequately
prepared for trial and whether there was any disagreement with the planned
strategy,” and “more important[ly], . . . ask[ed] [the defendant] to explain any
communication problem.” Id. at 780–81. The court found the inquiry was
adequate because the court gave the defendant “ample opportunity to explain
the alleged conflict between the defense counsel and [the defendant]—an
explanation [the defendant] utterly failed to give.” Id. at 781.
Because Polson was given the opportunity to have a meaningful colloquy
with the court about his request for substitute counsel, and because he did not
establish sufficient cause to justify the replacement of counsel on the eve of trial,
the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying his request.
B. Sufficiency of Evidence.
Polson maintains there was not substantial evidence in the record to
support his convictions stemming from the shootings because the State had not
shown Polson has the specific intent to commit the crimes of attempted murder,
assault with intent to inflict serious injury, and willful injury causing serious injury.
In considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, see
Meyers, 799 N.W.2d at 138, there was plenty of evidence to overcome Polson’s
intoxication defense. The defense requires “a high level of intoxication to support
a finding of no specific intent.” State v. Guerrero Cordero, 861 N.W.2d 253, 259
(Iowa 2015), overruled on other grounds by Alcala v. Marriott Int’l Inc., 880
N.W.2d 699, 708 (Iowa 2016).
Intoxication is a matter of degree. . . . The law does not specify the degree or the percentage of intoxication essential to sustain this defense, but it does require that it be such as to render the accused incapable of the requisite specific intent. He may be under the influence of intoxicating liquor, but he will not be absolved of criminal responsibility if he still possesses mental capacity to entertain the intent. Mere intoxication is not sufficient. Neither is it enough that he had been drinking liquor.
State v. Wilson, 11 N.W.2d 737, 745–46 (Iowa 1943). While Polson claimed he
was so intoxicated as to be unable to form specific intent, four of the State’s
witnesses—a number of whom had special training in detecting when someone
is under the influence—testified that they did not believe Polson was under the
influence at all on November 17, let alone to the extent that he was claiming.
Because Polson was not so incapacitated as to be unable to form specific
intent, we consider “the facts and circumstances surround [his actions], as well
any reasonable inferences to be drawn from those facts and circumstances, . . .
to ascertain the defendant’s intent.” State v. Schminkey, 597 N.W.2d 785, 789
(Iowa 1999). Additionally, we note that intent “is seldom capable of being
established with direct evidence.” Id. “[W]e are guided by the maxim that
defendants will ordinarily be viewed as intending the natural and probable
consequences that ordinarily follows from their voluntary acts.” State v. Bedard,
668 N.W.2d 598, 601 (Iowa 2003). Here, Polson drove his vehicle up to the
home of Mark Mitchell, walked up toward Mitchell’s home, and then shot Mitchell
in the stomach before fleeing. Next, he drove up to Zachary Whitehill’s stopped
vehicle and shot Whitehill twice—once in the neck and once in the back, before
again fleeing and leaving Whitehill behind. Finally, Polson drove up to the curb
of the home Matthew Stepheson was stopped at, waited for Stephenson to exit
the home, and then shot at him four or five times from his vehicle. As
Stephenson used his vehicle for cover and attempted to get back into the home,
Polson continued to fire shots at him. Bringing a gun, using the weapon to shoot
at three separate individuals multiple times—making contact with two—and
fleeing the scene without regard for the victims constitutes substantial evidence
Polson had the specific intent necessary for attempted murder, assault with intent
to inflict serious injury, and willful injury causing serious injury. Cf. State v.
Hamilton, 309 N.W.2d 471, 480 (Iowa 1981) (“[T]he general rule is that one who
arms himself with the express purpose of shooting another cannot ordinarily
claim the elements of first degree murder[, which includes specific intent] are
C. Weight of the Evidence.
Similarly, Polson claims the district court abused its discretion in denying
his motion for new trial; he maintains the weight of the evidence is contrary to the
verdicts that required he form a specific intent. “A verdict is contrary to the
weight of the evidence where ‘a greater amount of credible evidence supports
one side of an issue or cause than the other.’” State v. Shanahan, 712 N.W.2d
121, 135 (Iowa 2006) (citation omitted).
Polson offered his self-serving testimony that he had no memory of the
events surrounding the shootings—“coming to” right as officers surrounded him
and ordered him out of his vehicle—but there was otherwise very little
corroborating evidence. Bailey testified that she had used methamphetamine
with Polson approximately seven or eight hours before the shootings, but other
testimony showed Polson typically “came down” from the influence of the
methamphetamine within hours of taking it. Additionally, on cross-examination, it
became clear Bailey originally told officers she and Polson had used marijuana
the night before the shootings; she did not mention the use of methamphetamine
until one or two months before trial—approximately nine months after the
incidents occurred. Both Bailey and Polson’s ex-girlfriend testified Polson was
an erratic and unsafe driver when he was under the influence of
methamphetamine, but there was no indication that he was driving in such a
manner on the morning of November 17. Additionally, four of the State’s
witnesses testified that Polson’s demeanor was not consistent with someone
under the influence of methamphetamine. The jury was able to hear a phone call
between Polson and his ex-girlfriend two days after the shootings, and in it, he
did not tell her that he had no memory of the events, as he claimed at trial.
Rather he stated that it was all a “big misunderstanding,” that he had been pulled
over while simply driving to work, and that he could “beat this shit.” When asked
at trial to explain the conversation, Polson testified he did not remember the
phone call because it took him three or four days to come down from the drugs,
and his memory during that time period was “splotchy.”
Polson implied that the methamphetamine he took on November 16 was
cut with another substance that caused him to have an atypical reaction to the
drug. Bailey testified that the methamphetamine looked normal and that she did
not have an atypical reaction. Polson then testified they had finished another
bag of methamphetamine and he had started on a new purchase, which was why
he was the only one to have the reaction. Even if the jury believed Polson
ingested methamphetamine that had been somehow tampered with, Polson’s
claim that he was too intoxicated to form specific intent is belied by his ability to
drive, shoot with accuracy, and make the decision to dispose of the gun after an
officer began following him.
It is the province of the jury to determine the credibility of witnesses and
weigh the evidence accordingly. See id. (“The function of the jury is to weigh the
evidence and ‘place credibility where it belongs.’” (citation omitted)). Here, the
jury found the evidence countering Polson’s defense of intoxication more credible
than the evidence supporting it, and we cannot say the district court abused its
discretion in letting the jury’s verdict stand.
D. Ineffective Assistance.
Polson maintains he received ineffective assistance from trial counsel.
Specifically, he maintains trial counsel should have retained an expert witness to
testify about the effects of psychotropic drugs and counsel should have moved to
sever Polson’s shooting charges from his drug charges.
Claims of ineffective assistance are not bound by the traditional error
preservation rules, but we rarely address such claims on direct appeal. See
State v. Ondayog, 722 N.W.2d 778, 784, 786 (Iowa 2006). Here, both the State
and Polson maintain that the record is adequate for us to decide the claims on
direct appeal. We disagree. While the evidence Polson was the shooter was
overwhelming, there was some question as to whether Polson was able to form
the specific intent necessary to be convicted of the charges that resulted from the
shootings. Based on the record before us, we do not know if there was an expert
that could offer the type of testimony that Polson now contends was necessary—
testimony that would have buttressed his assertions about his lack of memory
and ability to form intent several hours after using “cut” methamphetamine. The
State maintains we should not be concerned by the lack of expert and what the
testimony may have been because it was just a “strategic decision” by counsel,
which is insulated from the ineffective-assistance analysis. But “we cannot
automatically assume every alleged misstep was a reasonable strategy simply
because some lawyer, somewhere, somehow, under some circumstances at
some time would have done such a thing.” Id. at 787.
Similarly, as to Polson’s claim that his trial should have been severed, we
believe the record is equally unclear. There are obvious reasons why a
reasonably competent attorney would consider moving to sever the charges;
Polson did not contest the drug charges—other than to testify his father was not
part of a conspiracy to sell the drugs—and the evidence of the approximately
twenty pounds of marijuana in Polson’s home may have led the jury to decide
Polson was untrustworthy or a just a “bad guy.” See State v. Blair, 362 N.W.2d
509, 511 (Iowa 1985) (“The trial court is to order severance where the defendant
shows his or her ‘interest in receiving a fair trial uninfluenced by the prejudicial
effects which could result from a joint trial [are] outweighed [by] the State’s
interest in judicial economy.’” (alterations in original) (citation omitted)); see also
Iowa R. Evid. 5.404 (excluding evidence of a defendant’s crime, wrong, or other
act to prove a person’s character). Again, the State claims counsel may have
chosen not to request that the trial be severed in order to emphasize Polson’s
drug problem, thereby supporting his intoxication defense. We note that the drug
charges involved marijuana and Polson’s intoxication defense relied on his use of
methamphetamine. Additionally, the fact that counsel may have made a
strategic decision is not sufficient to defeat a claim of ineffective assistance. See
Ondayog, 722 N.W.2d at 786–87. The State also argues Polson cannot
establish he was prejudiced even if counsel should have filed a motion to have
the charges severed into two trials because “the evidence was strong.” But
whether the jury believed Polson’s intoxication defense was based almost
entirely on whether the jury found Polson to be a credible witness, and we cannot
say whether the uncontested drug charges played a role in shaping the jury’s
decision about Polson’s credibility.