The Iowa Supreme Court heard an appeal for a new trial today in the case of the western Iowa woman who was sentenced to 50 years in prison in 2004 for the shotgun slaying of her abusive husband. Dixie Shanahan of Defiance kept her husband Scott’s body hidden in the bedroom where he died for over a year before it was discovered. Shanahan’s lawyer Steve Japantich argued that Shanahan’s original lawyer erred in not trying to prevent some evidence from being used in court against her.
He says Shanahan’s lawyer failed to object to what is called “prior bad acts evidence,” specifically evidence that Shanahan wrote bad checks after Scott died, that she wrote checks on his mutual funds account, and that she wrote letters to people regarding Scott’s disappearance. Japantich says there was also other evidence that Shanahan’s attorney should have tried to prevent from being used in the case.
He says the evidence that Shanahan sold Scott’s property after his death to obtain money to live on, and a claim of welfare fraud after Shanahan sent 10-thousand dollars of that money to her sister in Texas, and then applied for welfare.
Chief Justice Louis Lavorato questioned Japantich about his claim. Lavarato asked, “How do answer the State’s argument that this constitutes the circumstances surrounding the crime, that it explains, actually explains what happened?” Japantich says the prosecution’s argument was that it showed deception on Shananhan’s part by trying to conceal the body. But Japantich says,”She wasn’t charged with trying to conceal the body. She wasn’t charged with perjury, attempting to conceal the facts, she was charged with murder.”
Japantich says just because Shanahan lied after her husband’s death, that doesn’t mean she planned his death ahead of time. He says if the lies occurred after the murder then does it show what she intended before the murder? Justice Mark Cady asked how he makes a distinction that Shanahan’s action didn’t show her intent to kill her husband. He asked, “Was it just a plan to conceal (Scott’s death) or was it a plan to survive and feed her children?” Cady asked if that was a question for the jury to decide? Japanitch says if the proper objection had been made on the evidence, then the court could have decided if the evidence would have prejudiced the jury against Shanahan.
Mary Tabor of the Iowa Attorney General’s office argued for the prosecution, saying went beyond the action needed to protect herself. She says, “The history of domestic violence in this case explains Dixie Shanahan’s conduct, but it does not justify it. Mr. Japantich has argued in his brief that his client had no choice but to shoot her husband in the back of the head, but the record belies that claim. Each and every time Dixie Shanahan sought help from local authorities in this case they rose to the occasion. They arrested Scott, they threw him jail, they charged him with increasingly more serious levels of domestic violence.”
Tabor say Shanahan on the fateful day decided to become the lone executioner of her husband. She told the justices the argument was not whether Scott Shanahan got what he deserved, but whether Dixie Shanahan. got a fair trial. Tabor says a majority of her claims surround the actions of lawyer Greg Stensland. Tabor says Stensland was an experienced public defender who gave Shanahan a vigorous defense at the time of her trial.
Tabor says the evidence in question was important to establishing Shanahan’s credibility. She says Shanahan argued that if she had been in line to inherit a large amount of money, then that would have given her a motive to shoot her husband. Tabor argued that the fact that the money was running out and that could lead to more violence was also a motive for Shanahan to shoot her husband. Tabor says admitting evidence about the bad checks was proper in showing Shananahan’s lies.
She says once Shanahan decided to testify, her credibility was at issue. Tabor says the fact that Shanahan wrote bad checks and lied about where her husband was, showed pattern of deceit.
Tabor was asked by the justices about the importance of showing Dixie Shanahan sent money to her sister and then applied for welfare. Tabor says it was another instance that showed Shanahan lacked credibility because she lied about the money she had. It is not known when the Supreme Court will rule on the appeal.