New Trial for Syringe Threats at Iowa Casino

     DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — The Iowa Court of Appeals granted a new trial to a man convicted of second-degree robbery after being accused of threatening to inject a woman with a syringe at a casino unless she gave him her winnings.
     Cassandra Stever was playing slots at the Ameristar Casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa, when Jeshua David Divis sat down next to her.
     He allegedly held out a hat to her, and inside the hat was a syringe with the plunger pulled back, although Stever said she could see neither a needle nor the contents of the syringe. Divis then showed her his cellphone screen.
     The message on the screen threatened to inject her unless she gave him her money, according to court records. It also said four other people were walking around the casino doing the same thing.
     Stever showed him her empty wallet and walked back to her mother. Divis followed her at first but then left the casino.
     Based on Stever’s description of him and video from Ameristar, police managed to find Divis about 10 hours later at the Council Bluffs Horseshoe Casino.
     This time, he had a handwritten note that claimed the syringe was filled with HIV-infected blood. It had several exclamation points and read, in part, “If you fail to comply, one poke from anyone of [my companions] and we’ll change UR life.”
     Before his trial, the district court ruled that the handwritten note and video from the Horseshoe were admissible. Divis was subsequently convicted of second-degree robbery and sentenced to 10 years in prison, with a minimum of seven years.
     Judge Mary Tabor, in delivering the Iowa Court of Appeals’ unanimous decision, wrote Wednesday that the evidence overwhelmingly favored a guilty verdict. Stever may not have seen the needle or what was in the syringe, but the pulled-back plunger and the cellphone note were enough to satisfy the robbery elements, Tabor said.
     “Substantial evidence supported the jury’s conclusion Divis had a reasonable expectation he would place Stever in fear of offensive physical contact when he displayed the syringe and electronic note threatening to inject her if she did not comply with his demand for cash,” she wrote.
     However, Tabor wrote, the handwritten note and the video from the Horseshoe constituted inadmissible evidence that unfairly prejudiced Divis.
     “The state characterizes Divis’s robbery scheme as ‘unique’ and suggests being found in another casino on the same day engaging in the same behavior proves his identity as the perpetrator,” the judge wrote.
     But, according to the ruling, “the danger of unfair prejudice based on the content of the handwritten note—partially visible on the Horseshoe Casino video and fully visible in the exhibit offered at trial—was considerable.”
     For instance, the note Stever read on Divis’s phone did not mention HIV-infected blood, the ruling states.
     “But once the jurors saw the handwritten note referencing a needle and HIV-infected blood, they were allowed to supplement Stever’s testimony with more harrowing facts that were not part of the incident between Stever and Divis at the Ameristar Casino,” Tabor wrote. “The content and tone of the handwritten note appealed to the jurors’ fears and may have caused them to base their decision on emotion rather than the established propositions in the case.”
     The note and video also risked confusing the jury as to what events happened at each casino, and the error was not harmless given how prominently the state used the evidence to make its case, the appeals court found.
     “While the state’s proof was sufficient to satisfy the elements of robbery in the second degree, we do not find overwhelming evidence to support the threat element,” Tabor wrote. “Accordingly, we reverse and remand for a new trial excluding the handwritten note and the portion of the Horseshoe Casino video revealing the note.”
     Mark Smith, state appellate defender, and Theresa Wilson, assistant appellate defender, represented Divis.
     “I was pleased with the Court of Appeals’ thoughtful discussion of the evidentiary issue we raised,” Wilson said in an email. “The ruling recognized that the state did not establish a sufficient theory of admissibility for the ‘other acts’ evidence challenged on appeal, and that this other acts evidence was likely to improperly influence or confuse the jury.”
     The state attorney general’s office also could not be reached for comment Thursday.

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