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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Judge, Jury, And Interrogator: Court Of Appeals Of Iowa Notes That Judicial Interrogation Of Witnesses Is Allowed But Not Encouraged

Like its federal counterpart, Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.614(b) provides that

When necessary in the interest of justice, the court may interrogate witnesses, whether called by the court or by a party.

But according to the recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Iowa in State v Benesh, 2010 WL 786039 (Iowa App. 2010), Iowa precedent provides that "the practice is not encouraged." 

In BeneshChad Benesh was convicted after a jury trial of assault domestic abuse causing bodily injury. According to facts adduced at trial,

Chad Benesh and Kim Neelans met on the Internet sometime in late March or April 2007. Benesh subsequently moved in with Neelans in the fall of 2007. Their intimate relationship ended, but they continued living together in Neelans's house. Neelans later moved to a condominium, and Benesh moved with her.

On November 13, 2008, Neelans returned home and discovered Benesh in bed with Maureece McDuffee. A fight ensued between Neelans and Benesh, and the police were called to the residence. Neelans was ultimately treated for a broken rib following the incident. 

After McDufee testified as a defense witness and both sides finished interrogating her, the court stepped in, and the following exchange occurred:

[THE COURT]: Ma‘am, you testified ... that you were, quote, “so ashamed.” What were you ashamed of 

A. I just-felt like the other woman, and I felt-I was humiliated and ashamed, because I knew I hadn't done anything wrong, but yet I felt, the way [Neelans] was talking, that I was guilty of something.

[THE COURT]: Ma‘am, once it became clear to you that [Benesh] either had been arrested or had been charged, you did not go to the police to give them a statement? 

A. I didn't know I had to. I thought they would contact me if they needed me.

[THE COURT]: How would they have information as to how to get in touch with you? You didn't volunteer who you were.

[BENESH'S TRIAL COUNSEL]: Your honor, I'm going to object to the questions-

[THE COURT]: The objection is noted, for the record. It's in the record.

[BENESH'S TRIAL COUNSEL]: No. With respect to that particular question, a separate objection, your honor.

[THE WITNESS]: Would you repeat it, please?

[THE COURT]: You said that you did not give the police a statement. Would there have been some other way they could have otherwise identified you, without you coming over, as far as you know? 

A. I thought when they took [Benesh's] statement, they would get ahold of me.

Benesh later moved for a mistrial on the ground that this judicial interrogation was improper, but the trial court denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals of Iowa later agreed. The appellate court did note that judicial interrogation "is not encouraged" and "that the better practice is for the trial judge to exercise restraint and avoid the fray as by questioning witnesses 'the court becomes vulnerable to a multiplicity of criticisms; bias, prejudice or advocacy,' particularly where a jury is the fact finder."   

Nonetheless, the appellate court found that the trial court did not commit error because

the record d[id] not indicate the judge's questions emphasized the prosecution's case nor d[id] it show a jury could reasonably have interpreted the questions to mean the judge was siding with the State. Additionally, the questioning at issue did not discredit or impeach the witness's testimony on a key element or defense. The questioning at issue was merely to clarify the record.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2010/03/judicial-questioningstate-v-beneshslip-copy-2010-wl-786039-tableiowa-app2010.html

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