STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee, vs. JESS ESPINOZA CUEVAS, Defendant-Appellant.Annotate this Case
IN THE COURT OF APPEALS OF IOWA
No. 9-434 / 08-1344
Filed October 7, 2009
STATE OF IOWA,
JESS ESPINOZA CUEVAS,
Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Hardin County, William J.
Defendant appeals his first-degree murder conviction. AFFIRMED.
Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and David Arthur Adams,
Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.
Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Jean C. Pettinger, Assistant Attorney
General, Randall J. Tilton, County Attorney, and Douglas D. Hammerand,
Assistant County Attorney, for appellee.
Heard by Vogel, P.J., and Potterfield, J., and Mahan, S.J.*
*Senior judge assigned by order pursuant to Iowa Code section 602.9206 (2009).
Jess Cuevas appeals his first-degree murder conviction.
there is insufficient evidence to sustain the conviction. He also contends the
court erred in permitting his children to testify outside his presence, and in failing
to grant his motion for mistrial. We affirm.
I. Background Facts and Proceedings.
Brenda Cuevas‟s body was found after firefighters extinguished a fire at
her home at about 3:30 a.m. on October 15, 2005. It appeared the fire had been
deliberately set—the room smelled of gasoline, the air conditioner was turned to
its lowest setting, and the gas line to the furnace was disconnected.
On August 18, 2006, the State filed a trial information charging Brenda‟s
estranged husband, Jess Cuevas, with murder in the first degree. Minutes of
testimony filed that date list Cuevas‟s two minor daughters, N.C. and J.C., as
witnesses. On January 25, 2007, the State filed a motion seeking a protective
order allowing Cuevas‟s daughters to give deposition testimony by means of
Defendant resisted the motion.
evidentiary hearing, the district court granted the motion for a protective order.
On January 18, 2008, defendant filed a notice of defense asserting his
intention to rely upon the defense of alibi and listing his two minor daughters as
witnesses. On January 24, 2008, the State filed a motion seeking a protective
order allowing the prosecution to present testimony from defendant‟s two minor
daughters at trial by means of closed-circuit equipment. Following an evidentiary
hearing, the district court granted the State‟s motion.
Jury trial began on May 13, 2008. Based on the evidence presented at
trial, a reasonable juror could find the following. At about 3:20 a.m. on Saturday,
October 15, 2005, emergency personnel were dispatched to the Eldora home of
Brenda Cuevas after a 911 caller reported a fire there. Eldora Police Officer
Edward Lepley arrived at the scene about two minutes later and saw flames on
the east side of the house. Finding the front door locked, he beat on the door,
breaking a glass panel in the door.
The Eldora volunteer fire department arrived at 3:27 a.m. Fire Chief Bruce
Harvey noted that the front door, two of the three garage doors, and the back
door were locked. He was able to raise the third garage door. Although it was a
cool October morning, the central air conditioning was running. Chief Harvey
unlocked the front door and sent in a team of firefighters to put out the fire. They
discovered Brenda‟s burned body on the bed in her basement bedroom. Chief
Harvey smelled a strong odor of a flammable liquid and he saw a burn pattern on
the floor leading to the bed.
Further investigation showed that the gas line had been disconnected
from the gas input line of the furnace, which could have lead to an explosion.
The thermostat was turned all the way down. The fire originated in the basement
bedroom, and the burn pattern extended all around the bed, indicating the
flammable liquid had been intentionally poured rather than accidentally spilled.
Analysis of burnt carpet and other items near the bed showed that the flammable
liquid was gasoline and oil. The fire probably started ten to thirty minutes before
the 3:20 a.m. 911 call. Brenda had installed alarms on the front and back doors,
which had been turned off. There was no indication of a forced entry. Brenda‟s
purse, containing cash and credit cards, remained in the house. No fingerprints
suitable for identification were found, and blood found on the doors and the hood
of the stove matched Brenda‟s DNA profile.
The medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Brenda‟s body
observed a strong smell of a substance like gasoline on the body and
discolorations on her upper body suggesting chemical burns. Brenda‟s head had
been bludgeoned three to five times with a hard object, fracturing her skull.
There were also injuries to her neck consistent with strangulation. Bruising in the
muscles of her upper arm was consistent with defensive injuries. The medical
examiner determined that Brenda‟s death was the result of head and neck
trauma and occurred before the fire started.
Brenda and Cuevas, both nurses, married in October 1992. They had two
daughters: N.C., born in 1993, and J.C., born in 1996. Brenda and Cuevas
separated in May 2005 after Cuevas began to suspect that Brenda was
communicating with an old boyfriend who lived out of state. Brenda initiated
divorce proceedings and sought physical custody of the girls.
ordered to pay temporary child support to Brenda. N.C. and J.C. spent every
other weekend with Cuevas.
After the separation, Brenda and the girls lived with her mother and
stepfather for a time, and then moved into a split-level house in Eldora. Brenda
installed alarms on both the front and back doors and kept the doors locked.
Friends and family observed that Brenda seemed upset when she talked with
Cuevas on the telephone.
In May 2005, Cuevas moved into the rural Norwalk house of an older
woman, Dixie Ribar, with whom he worked at a hospital in Knoxville. Ribar‟s
house was about one hour forty minutes from Brenda‟s house in Eldora. Ribar
lived on the main level of the house, Cuevas had two bedrooms and a bathroom
upstairs, and Ribar‟s son, Michael, lived on the lower level. Because “money
was tight,” Cuevas mowed the grass and did odd jobs for Ribar to reduce his
$200 per month rent. He also used (and was buying) a black Ford Ranger
pickup that had belonged to Ribar‟s late husband.
Cuevas usually kept the
pickup in Ribar‟s garage, which was accessed by use of an automatic garage
door opener or a key code panel. Ribar testified the only time she knew Cuevas
to be angry was when she overheard Cuevas and Brenda discuss money or the
girls in telephone calls.
Cuevas began dating Deb College in August 2005. In September 2005,
they talked about marriage and Cuevas wanting custody of the girls. Cuevas
was confident that the lawyer he hired would be successful in getting him
custody. However, about a week before October 14, 2005, Cuevas told Deb that
the attorney had sent him a letter “to drop him” because he was unable to pay his
On Friday, October 14, 2005, Brenda took the girls to the local Hy-Vee to
meet Cuevas at 6:30 p.m. Cuevas was driving the black Ford Ranger pickup.
The girls were spending the weekend with Cuevas at Ribar‟s house. Ribar and
her son were both out of town for the weekend. Cuevas asked Brenda whether
she would be home later that night because he wanted to call and talk to her
about the custody issue after the girls went to sleep.
Brenda went to dinner with her parents and then to a gathering at the
American Legion with Ivan Miller. She left the American Legion before midnight,
telling a friend she needed to get home because she was expecting a telephone
call from Cuevas. Miller drove her home.
Cuevas and the girls stopped at a convenience store for a snack before
continuing on to Ribar‟s house. Cuevas called Deb College at 8:09 p.m. and told
her that they were just pulling into the driveway. Although Cuevas usually parked
the pickup inside the garage, he left it outside that evening.
Cuevas and the girls had something to eat and watched a movie, and then
the girls went upstairs to bed, N.C. at about 10:00 p.m. and J.C. a short time
later. Cuevas told J.C. that if she woke up and he was not there, she should not
be scared; he was going to the grocery store and she could call him on his cell
phone. Cuevas called Deb at 10:30 p.m. and said the girls were in bed and he
was getting ready for bed. Deb thought it was strange that he was going to bed
that early: he generally worked night shifts and would not go to sleep until early
morning, often talking to her on the phone at 1:00, 2:00, or 3:00 a.m. When
Cuevas went upstairs that night, he tucked the girls in, straightened up their
room, and then lay down on the floor next to J.C.‟s side of the bed and went to
sleep. Cuevas had never slept on the floor at Ribar‟s house when the girls were
there on other occasions. He was lying on the floor when N.C. woke up briefly at
a later point, and J.C. thought he was there when she woke up briefly. Cuevas
later told Ribar that he left the house at about midnight to get gas for the pickup.
At about 1:40 or 1:45 a.m., on Saturday, October 15, 2005, Richard Jeske
and Tiffany Balvanz saw a black or dark-colored pickup driving very slowly and
then turn onto the street on which Brenda lived in Eldora. The pickup had a
topper, a ball hitch, and a bar or rack on top. Both said that the pictures of
Cuevas‟s pickup were consistent with the pickup they saw in Eldora in the early
morning hours of October 15, 2005. However, Balvanz believed the license plate
on the truck she saw was a Hardin County plate.
Cell phone records show that at 5:07 and 5:08 a.m. on Saturday, October
15, 2005, Cuevas checked his voice mail. The calls went through a different cell
tower in the Norwalk area than the call he made to Deb College at 10:30 the
At 6:00 a.m., October 15, J.C. woke up to find Cuevas was not there.
N.C. woke up at 7:30 a.m. when she heard the garage door opening. Cuevas
came into the house with some groceries and said he had gone to get waffles.
N.C. observed that there were some fresh scratches on Cueva‟s left hand. She
had not seen the scratches on Friday. J.C. noticed a scratch on Cuevas‟s back,
but he did not respond when she asked him about it. Cuevas and the girls went
to Jordan Creek Mall and McDonald‟s and then stopped at Deb College‟s house.
Deb also observed the fresh scratches on Cuevas‟s left hand.
On the way home that Saturday afternoon, Cuevas and the girls stopped
at a Dollar General Store, where Cuevas bought some cleaning supplies,
including hydrogen peroxide, Clorox Oxi Magic, and a package of six terry cloth
towels. When Cuevas and his daughters returned to the Ribar house, N.C. and
J.C. went upstairs to play video games in their bedroom. Cuevas stayed outside
and cleaned his pickup.
Shortly after 5:00 p.m., Warren County deputy sheriff Bob Gebhart and
Special Agents Chris Callaway and Jon Turbett of the Iowa Division of Criminal
Investigation (DCI) arrived at Ribar‟s house.
Cuevas was pulling out of the
driveway in the pickup and told the officers he was going to get gas. The officers
informed Cuevas of Brenda‟s death. Cuevas then told the girls of their mother‟s
The officers interviewed Cuevas and conducted a consent search of the
house, garage, and vehicles. They found wet clothing and towels in the washing
machine, and Cuevas volunteered the information that if they found Brenda‟s
DNA, it was because he often washed the girls‟ clothes. In Cuevas‟s pickup was
a garbage bag in which was another bag containing towels (similar to ones found
in the washing machine) and the scrub brush Cuevas used to clean the pickup.
The officers did not see a pair of white tennis shoes.
A videotape from the Indianola Wal-Mart on Friday afternoon, October 14,
shows Cuevas wearing white tennis shoes. N.C. observed that Cuevas‟s white
tennis shoes were clean on Friday night. On Saturday, after N.C., J.C., and
Cuevas arrived home from the Dollar General Store, N.C. saw the shoes in the
garage and observed that they were dirty.
On Sunday, October 16, Cuevas
bought new white tennis shoes at Wal-Mart.
During the interview on October 15, Cuevas told the officers that he and
Brenda had been getting along well. Cuevas then criticized Brenda at length,
saying that she drank to excess, spent her time with men, and paid little attention
to the girls. Before hearing that the death was considered suspicious, he said
that Brenda had been depressed and then suggested that her brother, Chad
Roy, would benefit financially from her death.
When informed that Brenda‟s
death was suspicious and not accidental, Cuevas said that she had been with
numerous men and the killer could be anyone. He insisted that he had never
before left the girls alone. He claimed that when he got home from getting gas,
he realized he had forgotten to get waffles and went out again. Both N.C. and
J.C. said he came home only once.
Four days later, on October 19, 2005, law enforcement officers executed a
search warrant at Cuevas‟s residence.
During the search, the officers took
photographs of the scratches on Cuevas‟s hand and back. Cuevas said that he
had received the scratches while working on wiring under the dashboard of the
pickup. As he talked to the officers, Cuevas claimed he had cleaned the pickup
on October 15 because a dog had urinated in the back a month or two earlier.
Yet he described himself as “anal” about keeping the pickup clean. Cuevas also
told the officers “that his fingerprints would be everywhere or on everything in
Brenda‟s house” because he had visited numerous times and helped Brenda with
In the course of the search, officers seized a diamond stud earring Cuevas
was wearing. Special Agent Jack Seward of the DCI poked the earring through a
small manila envelope and labeled the envelope with the date, time, and a
description. As they were readying items to place in bags, Seward and Special
Agent Turbett stepped away from the table a few times.
When they were
finished collecting items, they gave Cuevas an inventory receipt to review and
sign. The next day, they realized that the earring was not with the other items
seized, nor was it listed on the inventory receipt.
On October 31, 2005, investigators again executed a search warrant at
Cuevas‟s house. In response to questions, Cuevas insisted that the officers had
taken the earring with them. The officers found the envelope with Special Agent
Seward‟s handwriting ripped up and in a garbage can in the garage. They did
not find the earring.
Cuevas was arrested on August 16, 2006. While in the Hardin County jail,
he was in the same cell block as Michael Sajulga. Sajulga and Cuevas got into
an argument one day about which television channel to watch. The exchange
Sajulga said that he knew Cuevas was in jail for a killing.
According to Sajulga, Cuevas responded, “You want to be number two?”
The jury found Cuevas guilty of first-degree murder. He now appeals.
Cuevas contends: (1) there is insufficient evidence to sustain the conviction; (2)
the trial court erred in allowing his children to testify via closed-circuit television
pursuant to Iowa Code section 915.38(1) (2007); and (3) the court erred in
denying his motion for mistrial. We affirm.
A. Sufficiency of the Evidence.
The standard of review for insufficient-evidence claims is for
correction of errors of law. The jury‟s findings of guilt are binding
on appeal if the findings are supported by substantial evidence.
Substantial evidence is evidence that could convince a rational trier
of fact that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. When
reviewing a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, we view
the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, including
legitimate inferences and presumptions which may fairly and
reasonably be deduced from the evidence in the record.
State v. Enderle, 745 N.W.2d 438, 443 (Iowa 2007) (citation omitted).
rational trier of fact could conceivably find the defendant guilty beyond a
reasonable doubt, the evidence is substantial. State v. Lambert, 612 N.W.2d
810, 813 (Iowa 2000).
Inherent in our standard of review of jury verdicts in criminal cases is the
recognition that the jury was free to reject certain evidence, and credit other
evidence. State v. Ame, 579 N.W.2d 326, 328 (Iowa 1998). The very function of
the jury is to sort out the evidence and place credibility where it belongs. State v.
Thornton, 498 N.W.2d 670, 673 (Iowa 1993).
Direct and circumstantial evidence are equally probative. Iowa R. App. P.
14(6)(p); State v. Parrish, 502 N.W.2d 1, 3 (Iowa 1993).
We find the
circumstantial evidence in this case is substantial and supports the jury‟s
determination that Cuevas is guilty of first-degree murder.
1. Motive. The jury could rationally have determined that Cuevas had a
motive for killing Brenda.
He and Brenda were in the process of getting a
divorce, and both sought custody of the girls. Cuevas could no longer pay the
attorney he believed would help him gain custody of the girls.
$1000 behind in temporary child support payments and could not afford his $200
per month rent at the Ribar residence.
2. Opportunity. Cuevas had the opportunity to kill Brenda. Cuevas knew
at least two weeks in advance that Ribar and her son would be gone the
weekend of October 15. Even Ribar‟s dogs were gone for the weekend. Cuevas
ensured that Brenda would be home by telling her he planned to call her that
night to discuss the custody issue. Brenda told a friend she needed to be home
that night because she was expecting a phone call from the defendant. Cuevas
told investigators he had arranged with Brenda to discuss the custody issue over
the phone that night, but did not make the phone call. He stated he intended to
call, but fell asleep.
There is evidence from which the jury could infer Cuevas was in Eldora at
the time of the murder. It takes about an hour and forty minutes to drive to
Eldora from Ribar‟s house. In his first account to Ribar of his activities that night,
Cuevas said he left the house at midnight to get gas.1
The fire at Brenda‟s house was set at or shortly before 3:00 a.m. Cuevas
was back in the Norwalk area shortly after 5:00 a.m. and checking his voice
messages. This timing is consistent with the timing of the killing and fire and the
driving time from Eldora to Norwalk.
The garage door at Ribar‟s house made noise when it opened. Contrary
to his usual practice of parking in the garage, Cuevas parked his pickup outside
on Friday evening when he and the girls arrived from Eldora. For the first time,
he slept on the floor near the girls‟ beds and told them not to worry if he was not
there when they awoke. Cuevas told investigators he was aware of triangulation
capabilities based on cell phone location. He told J.C. to call his cell phone if she
woke up in the night and was afraid. He checked his voice mail at 5:07 and 5:08
a.m. The jury could infer that he turned his phone on and checked for messages
as he neared Norwalk to see whether the girls had tried to call him.
3. Access to Brenda’s house. The evidence shows that Brenda‟s killer
used a key, making the fire appear accidental.
Emergency personnel who
responded to the report of the fire found the house locked and no sign of a forced
entry. Smears of Brenda‟s blood were later found on the front door, the vent
above the kitchen range, and the back door near the dead bolt lock. A photo of
He later gave her other, contradicting accounts.
the dead bolt lock on the back door shows blood smears. A key was needed to
lock the doors from the outside.
Sometime after the separation, possibly in late summer or early fall,
Cuevas had a house key made. Although he no longer lived in Eldora, he had
the key made at a hardware store there. Cuevas had been in Brenda‟s house in
Eldora to do some repairs and could have had an opportunity to take one of
Brenda‟s keys to copy. Cuevas had no need for a key to the Ribar residence.
He knew the key code to get into the house through the garage, and Ribar had
given him a key to get into the lower entrance.
4. Black pick-up truck. Richard Jeske and Tiffany Balvanz saw a black
pickup matching Cuevas‟s pickup at about 1:30 or 1:45 a.m. in Eldora, not far
from Brenda‟s house and driving in that direction.
The truck was a small
compact truck that looked like a Ford Ranger. Jeske was “99 percent sure” the
pickup was black, and it had a rack on top. Balvanz thought the pickup she saw
had Hardin County license plates. Cuevas‟s pickup had Warren County license
plates, but the ball hitch on the back bumper obscured part of the plate. Using
information provided by the Iowa Department of Transportation, investigators
compiled a list of all pickups registered in Hardin County as of October 2005.
They narrowed down the list to those that were ten years old or newer, small to
mid-sized, and dark-colored. They took photographs of any pickup with a topper.
Jeske and Balvanz eliminated all of the pickups in those photographs as not
matching the pickup they saw on October 15. Jeske and Balvanz stated the
pictures of Cuevas‟s pickup were consistent with the pickup they saw in Eldora in
the early morning hours of October 15, 2005.
Brenda had injuries that could be considered defensive
Cuevas‟s children noticed recent injuries to his hand and back on
6. Missing Evidence. The jury could also reasonably infer that Cuevas
took steps to dispose of evidence. Cuevas cleaned his truck with a cleaner that
contained hydrogen peroxide. Cuevas was a nurse and regularly used hydrogen
peroxide to get blood out of his uniforms. Cuevas was about to leave (without
the girls) when officers showed up at the Ribar residence. The towels and scrub
brush used to clean the pickup were in the pickup in a garbage bag for disposal.
Cuevas had placed the cleaning supplies in a garbage bag for disposal, despite
having washed similar items in the past. He claimed he was concerned about
spontaneous combustion after cleaning his truck with bleach despite the fact
there was a garbage can outside where he could have placed the materials.
A videotape from the Indianola Wal-Mart on Friday afternoon shows
Cuevas wearing white tennis shoes. N.C. observed his white tennis shoes were
clean on Friday night. On Saturday, N.C. saw the shoes and observed that they
were dirty. When agents conducted the consent search on October 15, they
looked specifically for shoes but did not see tennis shoes. On Sunday, Cuevas
bought new white tennis shoes at Wal-Mart.
Cuevas‟s seized earring disappeared.
The envelope to which it was
attached was later found torn up in the garbage can at Cuevas‟s residence.
7. Cuevas’s statements. When the conduct of a defendant subsequent to
the crime indicates a consciousness of guilt, such conduct can constitute an
implied admission. State v. Cox, 500 N.W.2d 23, 25 (Iowa 1993). “A false story
told by a defendant to explain or deny a material fact against him is by itself an
indication of guilt” and “relevant to show that the defendant fabricated evidence
to aid his defense.” Id. (citing State v. Odem, 322 N.W.2d 43, 47 (Iowa 1982)).
Thus, “inconsistent statements are probative circumstantial evidence from which
the jury may infer guilt.” State v. Blair, 347 N.W.2d 416, 422 (Iowa 1984).
Cuevas seemed anxious to explain any evidence that might materialize
during searches at his residence. As officers swabbed some red material in the
lint trap of the washing machine, he told them that Brenda‟s DNA might be
present in his laundry because he washed the girls‟ clothes. He also told them
that his fingerprints were all over Brenda‟s house because he had done repairs
The jury here could infer Cuevas‟s guilt from his inconsistent conduct and
statements. Cuevas told officers he had never before left the girls alone and did
so for the first time while he went to get gas in the early morning of October 15.
Yet, he was leaving his residence without the girls to get gas when officers
arrived the afternoon of October 15. Cuevas told officers he used the Oxi Magic,
towels, and scrub brush purchased at the Dollar General Store to clean dog urine
out of his truck because he was “anal” about the cleanliness of his truck. Yet,
Cuevas had gotten rid of his dogs in May 2005. Cuevas was pulling out of the
driveway alone in his pickup with the garbage bag full of used cleaning supplies
when officers arrived. He told the officers he was on his way to get gas that
afternoon and that he had gone to get gas early that morning. He told Ribar he
had left at midnight to get gas. Cuevas‟s statements made during the October 15
interview with law enforcement officers show inconsistencies and contradictions.
He initially seemed to suggest, even before he knew police considered the death
suspicious, that Brenda was suicidal. Then he tried to attribute the murder to her
brother, and finally to other men she may have dated. He complained about her
drinking, her conduct as a parent, and her relationships with other men.
Additionally, Cuevas angrily asked another inmate in the jail, “Want to be
number two?” when that person said he knew Cuevas was in jail for killing
Cuevas argues that there is evidence pointing to other suspects.
However, the jury had the duty of assessing the credibility of the differing
accounts of the incident and weighing the testimony of the witnesses. State v.
Laffey, 600 N.W.2d 57, 59 (Iowa 1999). The jury heard and considered the
evidence about the other suspects and concluded that Cuevas was guilty of
Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, there was
substantial evidence supporting the jury‟s determination of guilt.
B. Child Witnesses’ Testimony by Closed Circuit Television.
Cuevas contends the trial court erred in permitting the children to testify
outside his presence. When determining whether the trial court erred in granting
or denying protection under Iowa Code section 915.38(1), we review for errors at
law. State v. Rupe, 534 N.W.2d 442, 444 (Iowa 1995). To the extent Cuevas‟s
claims involve the Confrontation Clause, our review is de novo. State v. Bentley,
739 N.W.2d 296, 297 (Iowa 2007).
The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides “[i]n all
criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with
the witnesses against him.” U.S. Const. amend. VI. “The central concern of the
Confrontation Clause is to ensure the reliability of the evidence against a criminal
defendant by subjecting it to rigorous testing in the context of an adversary
proceeding before the trier of fact.” Maryland v. Craig, 497 U.S. 836, 845,110 S.
Ct. 3157, 3163, 111 L. Ed. 2d 666, 678 (1990).2 While face-to-face confrontation
is preferred, it is not required in every instance where testimony is admitted
against a defendant. Id. at 847-48, 110 S. Ct. at 3164, 111 L. Ed. 2d at 680. In
Craig, the Court recognized that a state‟s interest in “protecting child witnesses
from the trauma of testifying” in the presence of a defendant, is sufficient to
abrogate the defendant‟s right to confront witnesses face-to-face. Id. at 855, 110
S. Ct. at 3169, 111 L. Ed. 2d at 685; see also U.S. v. Quintero, 21 F.3d 885, 892
(9th Cir. 1994) (concluding defendant‟s confrontation rights were not violated by
non-victim child witness‟s testimony via closed-circuit television where trial court
specifically found that testifying in court would be traumatic for witness); Marx v.
State, 987 S.W.2d 577, 580-81 (Tex. Crim. App. 1999) (upholding testimony via
closed-circuit television by non-victim child witness where trial court made finding
that procedure was necessary to protect witness from significant emotional
Three main rights may be claimed by Cuevas under the Confrontation Clause: (1)
testimony under oath, (2) cross-examination by his counsel, and (3) the right to have the
jury observe the witness‟s demeanor. State v. Rupe, 534 N.W.2d 442, 444 (Iowa 1995);
accord Craig, 497 U.S. at 845-46, 110 S. Ct. at 3163, 111 L. Ed. 2d at 678. None of
these rights was infringed here. The judge‟s colloquy with the girls established that they
each understood the importance of telling the truth and promised to do so. Cuevas,
through his counsel, vigorously cross-examined each child. The jury had a full
opportunity to observe the girls‟ demeanor because the jury viewed their testimony, live,
over closed-circuit television. See State v. Shearon, 660 N.W.2d 52, 55 (Iowa 2003).
In order to protect a minor “from trauma caused by testifying in the
physical presence of the defendant where it would impair the minor‟s ability to
communicate,” a minor‟s testimony may be taken outside the courtroom and
televised by closed-circuit in the courtroom. Iowa Code § 915.38(1). “However,
such an order shall be entered only upon a specific finding by the court that such
measures are necessary to protect the minor from trauma.” Id. Thus, the use of
closed-circuit television testimony does not violate the Confrontation Clause if it
is necessary to protect a child witness from significant emotional trauma. Craig,
497 U.S. at 855,110 S. Ct. at 3169, 111 L. Ed. 2d at 685.
The critical inquiry is whether the “procedure is necessary” to further the
important State interest of protecting the child witness. Id. at 852, 110 S. Ct. at
3167, 111 L. Ed. 2d at 682. The trauma must be more than “mere nervousness
or excitement or some reluctance to testify.” Id. at 856, 110 S. Ct. at 3169, 111
L. Ed. 2d at 685 (citations omitted).
The trial court must find that the child
witness would be traumatized by the presence of the defendant, not by the
courtroom generally.3 Id.
[T]he Confrontation Clause requires the trial court to make a
specific finding that testimony by the child in the courtroom in the
presence of the defendant would result in the child suffering serious
emotional distress such that the child could not reasonably
The U.S. Supreme Court has articulated a three-part case-specific test to determine
necessity: (1) The trial court must hear evidence and determine whether use of the
closed-circuit television procedure is “necessary to protect the welfare of the particular
child witness,” (2) the trial court must find that “the child witness would be traumatized,
not by the courtroom generally, but by the presence of the defendant,” and (3) “the trial
court must find that the emotional distress suffered by the child witness in the presence
of the defendant is more than de minimis, i.e., more than „mere nervousness or
excitement or some reluctance to testify.‟” Craig, 497 U.S. at 856, 110 S. Ct. at 3169,
111 L. Ed. 2d at 685 (citation omitted).
Id. at 858, 110 S. Ct. at 3170, 111 L. Ed. 2d at 686-87.
Cuevas “asserts that the district court erred in interpreting the evidence
presented to justify the exceptional procedure of closed circuit examination of the
defendant‟s two children.” In our review of this issue, we have considered that
the children were not the direct victims of the offense for which Cuevas was on
trial and that the children‟s testimony was relevant to Cuevas‟s defense of alibi.
We conclude the trial court did not err in finding the “exceptional procedure”
The district court conducted a pretrial hearing to determine whether the
use of the closed-circuit television procedure was necessary to protect the girls.
Dr. Pottebaum testified she had been providing psychotherapy services to the
girls since August 2006. She testified that as of the time of the hearing, N.C. had
been experiencing periods of severe post-traumatic stress disorder and was
having problems with depression and anxiety. She further testified that N.C. had
nightmares, fears that Cuevas would harm her or her loved ones, and problems
with concentration to the point that there were periods of time where she was
N.C. was taking two psychotropic medications not commonly
given to adolescents to alleviate her symptoms. Dr. Pottebaum felt that N.C.
would be “very traumatized” by having to testify in an open courtroom in
Cuevas‟s presence and that such trauma would be more than a general
nervousness or reluctance to testify.
Dr. Pottebaum testified J.C. had received less counseling than N.C., but
her symptoms of emotional distress were worsening.
J.C. had been having
realistic nightmares that crossed over between a dream state and a waking state.
Dr. Pottebaum said that J.C. was very fearful of being in the same room with
Cuevas and feared he might harm someone else in her family. Dr. Pottebaum
believed J.C. would be traumatized by testifying in open court with Cuevas
present and that her well-being would be better served by testifying via closedcircuit television. She stated that J.C.‟s trauma would be more than just mere
nervousness or reluctance to testify.
Both N.C. and J.C. testified at the hearing at Cuevas‟s request, but
outside his presence. Both told the court that they feared their father. N.C.
stated she would refuse to testify in her father‟s presence.
grandmother confirmed that the girls were fearful of their father.
Cuevas attempted to show through the girls‟ testimony at the hearing that the
grandmother had influenced them to be fearful, the court‟s finding was limited to
the girls‟ emotional ability to testify, not the source of their fear.
The trial court, after observing the girls‟ testimony and demeanor,
concluded: “The simple fact is that both children are severely traumatized to the
extent that neither will be able to communicate in a courtroom if their father is
personally present.” We conclude that the testimony was sufficient to show that
the girls would be traumatized by the presence of the defendant and that the
emotional distress they might suffer in the presence of the defendant was more
than mere nervousness, excitement or reluctance to testify. See id. at 856, 110
S. Ct. at 3169, 111 L. Ed. 2d at 685. The requirements of Iowa Code section
915.38 were met.
C. Motion for Mistrial.
A trial court has broad discretion in ruling on motions for mistrial and new
trial. State v. Lindsey, 302 N.W.2d 98, 101 (Iowa 1981). We review for an abuse
of that broad discretion. State v. Piper, 663 N.W.2d 894, 901 (Iowa 2003). An
abuse of discretion occurs when the district court‟s discretion was exercised on
grounds clearly untenable or clearly unreasonable. Id. An “untenable” reason is
one that lacks substantial evidentiary support or rests on an erroneous
application of the law. Id. A mistrial is appropriate only when an impartial verdict
cannot be reached or the verdict would have to be reversed on appeal due to an
obvious procedural error in the trial. State v. Newell, 710 N.W.2d 6, 32 (Iowa
The following occurred during cross-examination of fourteen-year-old N.C.
Q. Okay. [N.C.], you talked—we talked about this a bit
earlier. You talked to a lot of people during the course of this case,
right? A. Yep.
Q. And, in fact, one of the things that they talked to you
about was whether you were scared of your dad, right? A. Yes.
Q. And, in fact, when you met with Officer Turbett on
October 19 and talked to him, he asked you that twice, whether you
were scared of your dad, correct? A. Yes.
Q. And you indicated you were not at that time, correct? A.
Q. And then you met with him on—A. Well, because I was
afraid he was—
Q. And then you met with him on October 26th again,
correct? A. Uh-huh.
Q. And he asked you on that date approximately nine times
whether you were scared, correct? A. Yes.
Q. And whether you felt safe staying with your dad, correct?
Q. And you indicated you felt safe, correct? A. Yes.
Q. And that you were not scared, correct? A. Yes.
Q. Then on—A. Wait. Can I finish the sentence I was saying,
Q. I think [the prosecutor] can go over that with you. On
November 8th you met with Teresa Dalton, correct? A. Uh-huh.
Q. Is that yes? A. Yes.
Q. And she asked you about concerns and fears for your
dad, correct? A. Yes.
Q. And she asked you that—whether you had any concerns,
and you indicated you did not have any concerns living with your
dad, correct? A. Yes.
Q. And every time she mentioned were you scared, you
talked about how you were scared you would miss out being with
your friends, correct? A. Yes. But I‟m also scared because he was
abusive when I was little.
Counsel immediately moved to strike and asked that the witness be
admonished to answer the questions. The court granted the objection and the
answer was stricken. The court further noted: “Ma‟am, if you‟d just kindly listen
to what [counsel] asks and then answer that.”
At the next break, Cuevas‟s counsel moved for a mistrial.
[Defense Counsel]: . . . . Your Honor, at this point in time we
would move for a mistrial in this case. The witness who was
testifying . . . added information that was not responsive to the
question that I had asked.
I don‟t believe that I did ask any further questions, but we
believe that that was information that‟s highly prejudicial. It was not
responsive to the question. It‟s clear that she has been co[a]ched
by the state on—her prior answers come quickly after the question.
She‟s been admonished. We tried to cut her off, but she
keeps adding extra information and she hasn‟t stopped. So we
would ask that the court grant a mistrial and that prejudice attach at
this point in time. Thank you.
The Court: All right. Correct me if my recollection is faulty,
but I believe what happened was [N.C.], after a question was
posed, volunteered an answer to the effect that it was because he,
referring to Mr. Cuevas, “abused us when we were little.” Am I
[Defense Counsel]: Yes, Your Honor. I asked her whether
she had been asked if she was scared of her father. And whether
she had said she was not. And then she volunteered. She said
yes, she had said that, and then she volunteered the additional
The Court: . . . . I‟m going to deny at this time the motion for
This is my thinking. The answer that concerns us here was
objected to promptly. I instructed the jury to disregard that
comment. I have no reason to disbelieve or to concern myself that
the jury will not follow that direction.
But beside that, I think that the witness‟s efforts—repeated
efforts to volunteer that statement and eventually placing it fully on
the record can be viewed from one perspective as likely
establishing the defendant‟s proposition here that the witnesses
have been indeed conditioned with respect to statements and
testimony and attitudes, et cetera.
So I do not believe that there‟s any prejudice that‟s accrued
at this point. I‟m going to ask the state, however, to make sure that
their witnesses—they are children I understand, but—it‟s difficult
under the best of circumstances.
But if you‟d be sure to make sure that they understand what
the protocol is and not to volunteer anything and to answer only the
question posed. . . .
In a lengthy cross-examination, N.C. volunteered that Cuevas was
“abusive when I was little.”
The court promptly struck the answer and
admonished the witness. The court instructed the jury as to what constitutes
evidence, which does not include stricken statements. We do not believe N.C.‟s
brief statement denied Cuevas a fair trial.
Generally, when improper evidence has been promptly stricken and the
jury admonished to disregard the evidence, a motion for mistrial is properly
denied. State v. Jackson, 587 N.W.2d 764, 766 (Iowa 1998). “Only in extreme
instances where it is manifest that the prejudicial effect of the evidence on the
jury remained, despite its exclusion, and influenced the jury is the defendant
denied a fair trial and entitled to a [mistrial].” State v. Peterson, 189 N.W.2d 891,
896 (Iowa 1971), overruled on other grounds by State v. Gorham, 206 N.W.2d
908, 910 (Iowa 1973). Moreover, whether the incident was isolated or repeated
is relevant to the question of whether prejudice is likely to have occurred because
prejudice results more readily from persistent efforts to place prejudicial matter
before the jury. State v. Anderson, 448 N.W.2d 32, 34 (Iowa 1989). The court
quickly struck the statement and later instructed the jury that the evidence in the
case did not include any testimony the court told the jury to disregard. The trial
court did not abuse its discretion in denying Cuevas‟s request for a mistrial based
on this isolated incident.
We conclude there was sufficient circumstantial evidence to support the
The trial court did not err in allowing the children to
testify via closed-circuit television. Finally, the court did not abuse its discretion
in denying the motion for mistrial. We affirm the judgment and sentence for firstdegree murder.