Judge overturns sex assault conviction of ex-UI student
A judge has overturned the conviction of an imprisoned former University of Iowa honors student who is charged with raping a fellow student, citing misconduct by the prosecutor and errors by his defense lawyer.
Evan Pfeifer didn't get a fair trial because a prosecutor asked witnesses improper questions to shore up the alleged victim's credibility, and his defense lawyer gave him ineffective counsel, Judge Douglas Russell ruled Wednesday. Russell vacated Pfeifer's conviction on third-degree sexual abuse and ordered a new trial.
"Justice has finally prevailed," said Pfeifer's father, Scott Pfeifer, who drives six hours every weekend to visit his son in prison and contends that he's been falsely accused.
Johnson County prosecutor Susan Nehring said her office hasn't decided whether to appeal, which must be done within 30 days.
Pfeifer, 22, has been serving a 10-year sentence at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility after a jury found him guilty in November 2012. His current attorney, Gary Dickey, praised Russell's ruling and said he would immediately seek Pfeifer's release on bail.
Then an 18-year-old freshman from suburban Chicago, Pfeifer was charged with raping a woman early on Oct. 3, 2010, on the university's Pentacrest lawn in the center of campus. He has contended that the sex was consensual.
The woman, also a UI student, testified that she met Pfeifer while walking home after a night of partying and heavy drinking. She contended that after they were talking, Pfeifer put his hand over her mouth, held her down and had intercourse with her against her will. She went to the hospital later that morning for a sexual assault examination — a nurse noted she was upset but had no physical injuries — and didn't immediately contact police.
About two weeks later, the woman saw the man she believed had assaulted her. Her sister followed him into a dormitory and got Pfeifer's name. The woman looked up Pfeifer on Facebook, and made a police report about a month after the incident. Testing later showed that DNA found on her underwear matched Pfeifer's profile. Pfeifer was kicked out of school after a disciplinary hearing, then arrested and charged.
Russell said the trial came down to whether the woman was credible, particularly because Pfeifer's trial attorney, Mark Brown, advised his client not to take the stand. The only other witness was a passing student who initially believed they were having consensual sex but asked the woman whether she had been raped after seeing her sobbing minutes later.
During the trial, prosecutor Anne Lahey asked the examining nurse whether the woman's demeanor was consistent with someone who had suffered trauma. The nurse said yes. Lahey also asked a detective whether his investigation's findings were consistent with the woman's report, and he said yes. Both questions were "clearly improper" under long-standing case law and could have unfairly prejudiced jurors against Pfeifer, Russell ruled.
"Lacking any other useful eyewitnesses to bolster the victim's credibility, the prosecutor chose to proceed by asking improper questions to achieve her goal," Russell wrote.
Brown should have objected to both questions and failed to do enough to attack the woman's credibility, Russell wrote. Brown should have consulted with experts to investigate issues such as the effect of alcohol on memory and false allegations of sexual abuse, he added. Taken together, the issues "render the jury verdict unreliable" and give a reasonable probability that the trial would have ended differently.
Scott Pfeifer called the ruling a bright spot after 4½ years of "pure misery and hell," choking up as he recalled that Evan Pfeifer recently missed the funeral of a grandmother with whom he was once very close.
He described his son as a bright young man who's staying positive behind bars and eager to return to college after his release.
"Evan will make something good out of this travesty that has happened in his life," he said.