STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee, vs. BENAIAH MABLIN, Defendant-Appellant.Annotate this Case
IN THE COURT OF APPEALS OF IOWA
No. 9-428 / 08-1180
Filed July 22, 2009
STATE OF IOWA,
Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Clinton County, Mark D. Cleve,
Defendant appeals his second-degree murder conviction, alleging the
district court erred in admitting testimony that was covered by the priest-penitent
Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Nan Jennisch, Assistant
Appellate Defender, for appellant.
Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Mary Tabor and James Kivi, Assistant
Attorneys General, and Michael L. Wolf, County Attorney, for appellee.
Considered by Mahan, P.J., and Eisenhauer and Mansfield, JJ.
Defendant Benaiah Mablin appeals his conviction for second-degree
murder, asserting that testimony from one of his pastors was admitted into
evidence in violation of the priest-penitent privilege as set forth in Iowa Code
section 622.10 (2007). We conclude that if an error occurred, it was harmless,
and therefore affirm Mablin’s conviction.
I. Facts and Procedural History.
At 3:00 p.m. on December 13, 2007, the manager of the Tucker
Apartments in Clinton saw Sandra Chambers-Singh, a resident, entering the
complex. Chambers-Singh was accompanied by Mablin and was holding her
three-year-old son on her shoulder.
Later that afternoon, a neighbor of
Chambers-Singh saw Mablin exiting the building alone. Mablin was bleeding
from his nose or hand.
Around 5:00 p.m. that evening, neighbors noticed the boy playing alone
and became concerned.
The manager was called, and the boy was asked,
“Where’s your mom?” He replied, “My mom’s sleeping.”
The boy then led the
manager to Chambers-Singh’s bedroom. The bedroom was covered with blood
stains on the floor, walls, doors, and bed, and Chambers-Singh’s dead body was
lying on the floor.
It was subsequently determined that Chambers-Singh had died after
suffering eighteen to twenty stab wounds, including wounds to her chest, face,
skull, and neck and “defense wounds” to her wrists and hands. Several of the
wounds were located on the back of Chambers-Singh’s neck. DNA analysis was
performed later, and it was determined the blood in the apartment came from
both Chambers-Singh and Mablin.
Mablin appeared at his aunt’s house around 4:30 p.m. that same
afternoon of December 13, with cuts on his own neck and hands, and wearing
bloody clothes. His aunt helped him wash his clothes and took Mablin to the
hospital for treatment. Mablin told his aunt he had injured himself when someone
tried to rob him and he had to jump from a moving vehicle. Mablin repeated a
similar story to the emergency room paramedic.
Soon thereafter, an officer from the Clinton Police Department was
dispatched to the emergency room because Mablin wanted to file an assault
complaint. Mablin again repeated the story about having to jump from a moving
vehicle, adding more details including the cash he supposedly lost, descriptions
of the alleged occupants of the vehicle, and the purported make of the vehicle (a
At 7:30 p.m., another officer from the Clinton Police Department
arrived. Once again, Mablin told the story about being robbed of his cash by
several individuals and having to jump from a Cadillac.
By this time, the officers had become aware of the homicide of ChambersSingh and noticed that Mablin’s coat matched the description given by witnesses
at the apartment building. Accordingly, they asked Mablin to come to the police
station for more questioning. Mablin complied that evening, and over the course
of a four-hour interview with a Clinton Police Department detective and an Iowa
Division of Criminal Investigation special agent he repeated essentially the same
story about having to jump out of a Cadillac. Although the detectives suspected
Mablin of involvement in Chambers-Singh’s death, they decided for tactical
reasons to broach that subject slowly. At the end of the interview, the detectives
had still not asked Mablin directly about Chambers-Singh. However, they did ask
Mablin if he would turn over to them the tennis shoes he was wearing. Mablin
The next morning, December 14, 2007, Chambers-Singh’s minivan was
found near the house of Mablin’s aunt. There were blood stains on the driver’s
side door and inside the minivan. That afternoon the detectives went to the
Victory Center Rescue Mission, where Mablin had been staying. During a twohour interview at the center, the detectives asked Mablin if he knew the victim
and posed hypothetical questions about why his blood or hair might be in her
apartment. Mablin became evasive during these questions and initially denied
knowing the victim. After the detectives made it clear they did not believe him,
Mablin stated he would talk if he had a support person with him. The detectives
decided to terminate the interview and resume it at a later time.
The Victory Center is a homeless shelter in Clinton, providing meals and
lodging to the poor and needy, as well as faith-based instruction. The center was
founded by Pastor Ray Giminez, the executive director, in April 1987.
Miltenberger is an assistant pastor at the shelter. Mablin had been a resident of
the center off and on since spring or early summer in 2007. Pastor Giminez
testified that Mablin’s stays at the center involved Bible study and attending
preaching services, and that he had maintained a good relationship with both
pastors. He also testified that Mablin “absolutely” considered him his pastor on
December 14, 2007.
After a fellowship dinner with members of the board of directors, Pastors
Giminez and Miltenberger returned to the center around 8:30 p.m. on
December 14, 2007. Both men were aware of Mablin’s meeting with authorities
that afternoon and decided to question Mablin to learn exactly what had
happened. While in Pastor Miltenberger’s office, Mablin admitted to the two men
that he had not told the truth to the detectives. Mablin indicated that the lack of
an attorney was the reason he had not told the truth, but now he was ready to
Mablin related a different version of events to the pastors. He told them
he and Chambers-Singh had gone to Davenport and bought drugs, and then
returned to her apartment. They proceeded to take the drugs and have sex. At
that point, Mablin claimed that a couple of unidentified men entered the
apartment. One of them hit Mablin hard on the back of the neck. Mablin pulled
up his pants and ran out of the apartment, driving off in Chambers-Singh’s
As he was leaving the apartment, Mablin said he heard the victim
screaming and felt bad for not going back to save her. According to Mablin, the
minivan ran out of gas and he had to walk part of the way to his aunt’s house.
While en route, he fell, cutting his hand. After listening to this story, Pastor
Giminez told Mablin he “needed to tell the truth,” and Mablin volunteered to go to
the police station. Pastor Miltenberger phoned the Clinton Police Department,
made arrangements for an interview, and both pastors accompanied Mablin to
The final interview took place at the Clinton Police Station and lasted from
approximately 10:30 p.m. on December 14 to around 1:00 a.m. on December 15.
It was recorded in its entirety, and the entire recording was played for the jury.
Mablin asked at the beginning that both pastors be present for the interview
because he had “confided in them.” His request was granted. At various times
during the interview, the pastors encouraged Mablin to tell the truth for religious
reasons. For example, the pastors told Mablin that “Jesus is standing right here,”
that he needs to “do right before the Lord,” that “God knows,” and that “God loves
you either way.”
For approximately the first forty minutes, Mablin related in considerable
detail essentially the same fabricated story he had told the pastors. Thus, he
claimed that unknown individuals had entered Chambers-Singh’s apartment after
he and Chambers-Singh had done drugs and had sex. Mablin said that he had
been hit on the back of his head by one of these individuals, and had to run out
of the apartment for his own safety, leaving Chambers-Singh behind. He claimed
this story was the “honest to God truth.” Mablin appeared to be in tears about
what happened to Chambers-Singh.
At this point (around 11:15 p.m. on December 14), the Clinton Police
Department captain who was leading the interview confronted Mablin. He made
it clear that he did not believe this story. Thereafter, Mablin slowly began to
provide yet another version of events. Mablin said that after he had done drugs
and had sex with Chambers-Singh, they had had a disagreement. ChambersSingh wanted some additional rocks of crack cocaine that were in Mablin’s coat,
and Mablin resisted. Chambers-Singh came after him in the bedroom with a
knife that she had obtained in the kitchen. According to Mablin, he did not even
notice that she cut him. Mablin then picked up the same knife. He admitted
stabbing Chambers-Singh numerous times.
Mablin said he was “swinging.”
Mablin admitted that “I could have walked away, but I wasn’t thinking.” 1 After
Mablin was done stabbing Chambers-Singh, he left the apartment, drove off in
her minivan, and proceeded to his aunt’s house—intentionally leaving the
minivan some distance from the house.2
Mablin was arrested at the conclusion of the interview and subsequently
charged with first-degree murder. Prior to trial, Mablin filed a motion in limine,
seeking to exclude any reference to conversations that occurred between him
and the pastors at the Victory Center on the basis of the privilege contained in
Iowa Code section 622.10. The case proceeded to jury trial. After allowing the
parties to make a record outside the presence of the jury, the district court denied
the motion in limine. Pastor Giminez was thus allowed to testify to what Mablin
had told him and Pastor Miltenberger during their meeting at the center.
Mablin was approximately nine inches taller than Chambers-Singh and outweighed her
by about sixty pounds.
As the State has pointed out, even the final story told by Mablin raises some
unanswered questions: Although Mablin claimed to have dropped the knife in the
bedroom after stabbing Chambers-Singh, no knife was found. In addition, although
Mablin claimed Chambers-Singh previously had gone into the kitchen and returned with
the knife, her dead body was found with nothing on below the waist, and her t-shirt and
bra pushed up. We agree with the State that it seems odd Chambers-Singh would have
walked into and out of the kitchen disrobed in that manner.
Following the close of evidence, in addition to first-degree murder, the jury
was instructed on the lesser-included offenses of second-degree murder,
voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter. Mablin was convicted by
the jury of second-degree murder, and sentenced to an indeterminate fifty-year
term of imprisonment on July 10, 2008.
He contends that he should be granted a new trial
because the district court erred in admitting Pastor Giminez’s testimony
concerning his meeting with the two pastors on December 14, 2007. According
to Mablin, that evidence was covered by the priest-penitent privilege contained in
Iowa Code section 622.10 and was therefore privileged.
II. Standard of Review.
“Because evidentiary privilege in Iowa is based on statute, our review is
on error.” State v. Richmond, 590 N.W.2d 33, 34 (Iowa 1999). However, we do
not reverse for errors in the admission of evidence unless substantial rights are
affected. See Iowa R. Evid. 5.103(a).
III. Legal Analysis.
Iowa Code section 622.10 protects communications with a member of the
clergy when the communication is “(1) confidential, (2) entrusted to a person in
his or her professional capacity, and (3) necessary and proper for the discharge
of the function of the person’s office.” State v. Alspach, 524 N.W.2d 665, 668
(Iowa 1994). This statute “is to be construed liberally to carry out its manifest
purpose.” Id. However, section 622.10 does not shield all communications with
a clergy member.
In Richmond, 590 N.W.2d at 35, our supreme court held the privilege did
not apply where the defendant consulted a priest not “in his priestly capacity,” but
in his capacity as an unlicensed marriage and family counselor. Mablin contends
that he spoke with Pastors Giminez and Miltenberger on the evening of
December 14 in their capacity as pastors, whereas the State counters that he
spoke to them in their capacity as administrators of the Victory Center homeless
Mablin’s arguments are not entirely without force. During the voir dire that
took place out of the jury’s presence, Pastor Giminez testified as follows when
questioned by Mablin’s attorney:
Q. Do you believe that Ben Mablin considered you his
pastor on December 14th? A. Oh, absolutely. Yes.
Q. And you had come to him to talk about the witness
situation? A. Yes.
However, Pastor Giminez also testified as follows when questioned by the
Q. And it is fair to say that the reason that you sought him
out was because you were concerned, among other things, about
the safety of the Victory Center? A. That’s correct . . . . I decided I
better get involved in this because this is a very serious situation
Q. So you got involved in this situation as the executive
director of the Victory Center? A. That’s correct.
The foregoing testimony suggests that there are two possible answers to the
“capacity” of Pastors Giminez and Miltenberger, depending on whether one
considers the matter from the pastors’ perspective or from Mablin’s.
Richmond, the court noted that both perspectives, i.e., that of the defendant and
that of the alleged spiritual advisor, supported the same conclusion:
The record strongly supports the trial court’s finding that Richmond
did not consult Fr. Osing in his priestly capacity. Richmond himself
concedes that it was not for any spiritual reason but for advice on
his relationship with Krell. Fr. Osing testified he was under the
same impression. The claim of priest-penitent privilege thus fails.
Richmond, 590 N.W.2d at 35.3 However, in the end we need not decide whether
Mablin’s communications with the pastors at the Victory Center were privileged
because any error in admitting Pastor Giminez’s testimony about those
discussions was harmless.
Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.103(a) provides that “[e]rror may not be
predicated upon a ruling which admits or excludes evidence unless a substantial
right of the party is affected.”
Thus, error in an evidentiary ruling that is harmless may not be a
basis for relief on appeal. We presume prejudice under this
approach, unless the contrary is affirmatively established. When a
nonconstitutional error is claimed, as in this case, the test is
whether the rights of the objecting party have been “injuriously
affected by the error” or whether the party has “suffered a
miscarriage of justice.”
State v. Parker, 747 N.W.2d 196, 209 (Iowa 2008) (internal citations omitted).
We believe that Mablin was not “injuriously affected” by the alleged error, which,
as in Parker, was not of constitutional dimensions. See id. In the overall picture
of this case, Giminez’s testimony about the meeting in Miltenberger’s office was
Notably, although the State has consistently contended that Mablin spoke with Giminez
and Miltenberger in their capacity as administrators of the Victory Center, in closing
argument the State referred to their role as Mablin’s pastors. In particular, the
prosecutor told the jury, “Of course, he had not told any number of stories prior to that
that were wrong, that were not truthful, including to his pastors at the Victory Center.”
(Emphasis added.) However, as noted below, the closing argument references to this
meeting were quite brief.
a relatively small vignette that corroborated other evidence properly in the record.
See State v. Jurgenson, 225 N.W.2d 310, 312 (Iowa 1975) (“[E]rror in the
admission of evidence is not prejudicial where substantially the same evidence is
in the record without objection.”).
We reiterate the essential facts of this case: After stabbing ChambersSingh eighteen to twenty times and leaving her body to be found by her threeyear-old son, Mablin took the keys to her minivan and drove off. He hid the
minivan some distance away from his aunt’s house. He then went into the house
and washed his clothes.
After that, he sought medical attention for himself.
During the remainder of that day, he told the same made-up story about having
been robbed and having to jump out of a car five separate times, adding more
and sometimes different details as he went along.
The next day, Mablin was re-interviewed by police at the Victory Center.
Initially, he stuck to his story about being robbed, although he started to waver
when asked specific questions about Chambers-Singh. He then spoke to the
pastors that evening, and they persuaded him to speak to the police once more.
At the police station late that night, Mablin initially told a detailed false story for
about forty minutes about being assaulted by an unknown assailant at
Chambers-Singh’s apartment, before ultimately confessing that he was the
person who stabbed her multiple times and killed her.
In this trial, as in any trial, some items of evidence loom larger than others.
Here we believe the critical evidence consisted of the physical evidence of
Chambers-Singh’s wounds, and Mablin’s final recorded interview, which the jury
viewed in its entirety. Pastor Giminez’s testimony took up only nine transcript
pages, and the State referred to it only briefly in closing argument. Even without
Pastor Giminez’s testimony, the State would have proved that Mablin told a false
story about jumping out of a car at least five separate times. The State would
have proved that with two pastors by his side, Mablin told an elaborate fortyminute lie to the detectives about having been hit on the back of his neck by an
unknown assailant, a story that he proclaimed was the “honest to God” truth and
at the end of which he broke down in tears of regret for having supposedly left
Chambers-Singh to this assailant and other unknown individuals.
Thus, we cannot see how Mablin suffered a miscarriage of justice by the
admission of Pastor Giminez’s brief testimony, which merely corroborated a large
volume of other evidence demonstrating Mablin’s calculating untruthfulness.
Moreover, we believe some of the other evidence, particularly the video of the
final interview, was considerably more powerful. Additionally, the jury could have
logically inferred that Mablin had previously spoken untruthfully to the pastors
from statements that were made during the final, recorded police interview itself.
See, e.g., State v. Sullivan, 679 N.W.2d 19, 29 (Iowa 2004) (stating where the
“same evidence was overwhelmingly clear in the record, any error in the
admission of the challenged evidence was deemed not prejudicial”); State v.
Trudo, 253 N.W.2d 101, 108 (Iowa 1977) (“[O]rdinarily, a defendant may not
claim prejudice where the same evidence is otherwise supplied by the defendant
or is made overwhelmingly clear in the record.”); In re Estate of Hettinga, 514
N.W.2d 727, 733 (Iowa Ct. App. 1994) (“Evidence which is cumulative, which
only corroborates other evidence properly in the record, does not constitute
For the foregoing reasons, we conclude Mablin was not prejudiced by the
admission of Pastor Giminez’s testimony, whether privileged or not, and
accordingly affirm his conviction.