An Emmet County jury found Lee Samuel Christiansen of Estherville guilty of second-degree murder in the 2016 shooting death of Thomas Bortvit. Bortvit had been seeing a woman Christiansen had dated and his defense argued he should be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Christiansen appealed the verdict alleging jurors found him guilty of a more serious charge because of a Facebook post threatening a riot if he wasn’t found guilty of first-degree murder.
Assistant Attorney General Tyler Buller asked the Supreme Court justices to vacate the appeals court’s ruling that the jury was prejudice — arguing it was based on innuendo — and not the fact finding used in the district court’s decision. “What we have in this case is something that’s happened in every Iowa courtroom going back 150 years,” Buller said. “Every time there is a small town, high profile prosecution, there are rumors, there’s innuendo, and there’s gossip. This case is nothing more than that, with the added twist of 21st Century technology.”
Iowa City Attorney Leon Spies represented Christiansen, and argued social media tainted the jury’s ruling.”Mr. Christiansen had the right to have a trial decided by 12 impartial jurors–not 11, not 10,” Spies said. “The other aspect of this case, besides the misconduct issue, is the bias issue. And, the bias issue is the one, I think, that gives pause to any comfort being found in Mr. Christiansen being found guilty of only second-degree murder.”
Justice Edward Mansfield questioned whether the alleged Facebook post had any impact in the jury’s murder conviction. “What we’re talking about is a Facebook post of a rumor of a riot,” Mansfield said, “and then somebody talked about that post to a juror, and it’s not even clear if that was discussed prior to the murder verdict having been reached.”
Chief Justice Mark Cady says the justices will continue to deliberate on the case, and file a ruling within “a couple of months.”
(By Mike Peterson, KMA, Shenandoah)