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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Legal Malpractice Case Revived by Iowa Court

(CN) - A man who was convicted of soliciting sex from a minor did not have to prove his innocence to win a legal malpractice case, a divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled.

Robert Allen Barker wrote graffiti on the wall of a public restroom in 2006, inviting young males interested in oral sex to contact him through a certain email address.

An agent from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation contacted Barker, posing as a teenage boy named "Jayson." When Barker arrived for his meeting with "Jayson," he was arrested.

Barker was charged with attempted enticement of a minor and solicitation of a minor to commit a sex act. He pleaded guilty to the latter charge and was jailed in 2008 after violating his probation, as a home visit revealed that he had images of young males on his computer.

However, Barker's conviction was overturned in 2011, because the court found that he had not solicited someone to commit an actual crime.

"The adult cannot be considered to have asked the 14- or 15-year-old boy to commit a felony crime," the court reasoned. "By advising and permitting Barker to plead guilty to a crime for which he could not give a factual basis, defendant's counsel failed to perform an essential duty and the prejudice to defendant was inherent in the conviction entered upon his defective plea."

Barker sued his attorneys, Donald Capotosto and Thomas Magee, for legal malpractice in 2013. The lawyers won when the court agreed with them that Barker could not prove his "actual innocence."

However, a divided Iowa Supreme Court overturned the ruling on Feb. 5. Justice Edward Mansfield noted in his opinion for the court that a malpractice plaintiff must first obtain judicial relief from his conviction, which Barker did.

"But we do not think an additional actual innocence screen is appropriate," he wrote. "Such a prerequisite goes beyond respecting the criminal process - i.e., 'judicial economy and comity' - and interposes an additional barrier to recovery that other malpractice plaintiffs do not have to overcome."

Justice Bruce Zager wrote a dissenting opinion, noting the majority's finding that several states have an "actual innocence" requirement in these cases.

"In my opinion, an admission by the malpractice claimant of actual guilt to a crime should also eliminate any claim for criminal malpractice," he wrote.

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