Ritenour conviction overturned; new trial to be held

Alicia Ritenour (file photo)

Oskaloosa, Iowa- A nearly five-year-old murder case has taken a new twist after a Senior Judge found ineffective assistance of counsel. Alicia Ritenour’s 2014 first-degree murder conviction in the death of her three-year-old daughter, Ava, was overturned by Senior Judge Dan Wilson on the grounds that her trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel in multiple ways. A post-conviction relief trial was held in September, with Wilson hearing testimony related to 24 claims that Ritenour’s post-conviction relief attorney, Gina Messamer, believed were grounds for a new trial.

At least 17 of the claims Wilson considered dealt with ineffective assistance of counsel. Ritenour’s trial counsel was Mike Smith, who was appointed as special defense counsel after public defender Ken Duker was forced to withdraw from the case due to a conflict of interest.

During the November 2014 murder trial, much of the evidence presented came down to the credibility of Ritenour. Prosecuting attorneys sought to show that Ritenour was a “bad mom” who no longer wished to be a mother. Ritenour’s defense attorney, however, attempted to show jurors that Ritenour was a good mother to her daughter, Ava, and that someone else in Ritenour’s apartment at the time of the murder had killed her daughter. Ritenour’s attorney attempted to introduce evidence of meth use by Logan Cavan, who was a witness for the state, in pointing the finger at him in the death of Ava.

Messamer, Ritenour’s postconviction relief attorney, made several claims in relation to evidence of meth use by Cavan in arguing for a new trial for Ritenour. Messamer first claimed that her trial counsel errored.

The ruling is the second murder conviction that methamphetamine use was admissible as relevant to motive or intent to kill. Judge Dan Wilson wrote that the case was primarily a circumstantial case, coming down to who was more credible.

“Because this case had no physical evidence that directly connected Ava’s death to Ritenour, it relied solely on credibility and circumstantial evidence. The introduction of another person who had motive to kill Ava has a substantial likelihood of affecting the outcome of the trial,” Wilson wrote.

Wilson added in his ruling that if Ritenour’s attorney wished to argue that Cavan had been using meth in the days leading to Ava’s death, that evidence should have been introduced.

“If it was trial counsel’s theory to point the finger at Cavan in order to create doubt in the minds of the jurors, it was imperative for him to introduce any and all evidence that might support this finding. Cavan was a strong witness in support of the State’s narrative; getting his methamphetamine usage admitted to prove motive or intent could discredit him and create doubt that Ritenour was guilty,” Wilson wrote.
By not introducing this evidence, Wilson writes, Ritenour was provided ineffective assistance of counsel.

“Had trial counsel presented the drug use evidence in order to show Cavan had motive for killing Ava, the outcome of the trial may have been different” Wilson wrote.

Messamer also argued that Ritneour’s trial counsel errored in not obtaining and offering expert testimony on the impact of methamphetamine withdrawal. Wilson wrote that expert testimony relating to the withdrawal effects of methamphetamine could have been helpful to Ritenour’s defense and should have been sought.

“Without an investigation having been conducted, the question of whether trial counsel ought to have sought expert testimony cannot be answered. If during the investigation, it was found that Cavan had not used methamphetamine shortly before Ava’s death, the testimony of an expert may not be necessary. If it were found Cavan did use methamphetamine shortly before Ava’s death, then it would be up to the judgment of defense counsel of whether expert testimony was needed,” Wilson wrote.

Had expert testimony been obtained, it could have resulted in an acquittal.

“The failure to conduct a reasonable investigation concerning the necessity of an expert witness is an essential duty that trial counsel failed to perform. The possibility of discrediting a central witness to the State’s narrative could have reasonably resulted in a different result at trial,” Wilson wrote in upholding this second claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.

A third claim of ineffective assistance of counsel dealt with what Messamer called a failure to investigate Cavan’s drug use and background. During the trial, a hearing was held outside the presence of the jury where Cavan was questioned about his recent use of meth. He stated that it had been a week and a half before that he had used the drug. Cavan was asked by Judge Myron Gookin, the judge presiding over Ritenour’s trial, whether or not his recollection was affected by his “coming down” to which Cavan said no. As a result, Judge Gookin ruled that any evidence of the use of meth was inadmissible in the remainder of the trial.

In his ruling, Wilson wrote that Ritenour’s trial counsel failed to provide any evidence in the hearing outside of the presence of the jury to justify admission of evidence relating to Cavan’s drug use.

“If it was trial counsel’s theory that Cavan had actually committed the murder, the introduction of the drug use evidence would have been crucial. In essence, trial counsel had a theory but lacked almost any foundation upon which to support it,” Wilson wrote.

By not having evidence to back up the theory, Wilson ruled that Ritenour received ineffective assistance of counsel.

“If trial counsel had been able to offer evidence of Cavan’s drug use at trial, he may have impeached Cavan’s testimony as well as provided a second suspect, and therefore, reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors,” Wilson wrote.

Another issue involving Logan Cavan was testimony by Cavan that he had fed Ritenour’s daughter pizza in the days before her death because Ritenour was not feeding her daughter. Messamer argued that not responding to that testimony was further ineffective assistance of counsel. Wilson agreed.

“Ritenour was prejudiced from trial counsel’s failure to attempt to impeach Cavan. The statements about the pizza and feeding Ava were said to have occurred the night before Ava was found dead, January 23, 2014. Calling into question Cavan’s testimony of that night would substantially weaken the State’s narrative of what happened. There is a reasonable probability that the outcome would have been different,” Wilson wrote.

Messamer also argued that Ritneour’s attorney failed to counter the “bad mom” theory by the State with evidence that Ritenour was a “good mom”. By not doing so, Messamer argued, Ritenour had received ineffective assistance of counsel.

During Ritenour’s trial, the main theory presented by the state was that Ritneour had murdered her daughter by repeatedly hitting her head with an unknown object the night of January 23. After repeatedly hitting Ava’s head, witnesses for the state testified that Ritenour left the room and took a shower. During that time, Ritenour’s live-in boyfriend at the time, Jacob Rauch, went in and calmed Ava down, according to testimony of Rauch during the trial. Messamer argued that Ritenour’s attorney should have presented evidence that showed Rauch stroked Ava’s head to calm her down, something Messamer said would have refuted the theory that Ava’s fatal head injury had been dealt to her by Ritenour on the evening of January 23.

“Ritenour argues that if she had caused Ava’s skull fractures before Rauch went in, as was a theory put forth by the State, that Rauch would have felt the injury as he calmed her down by rubbing her head. Ritenour claims that it is common sense that had Ava had the injury at that time, rubbing her head would not have calmed her down,” Wilson wrote.

Wilson agreed with Messamer’s argument that the evidence should have been presented.

“Presenting evidence that Ava was not injured when Rauch put her to bed would have contradicted the State’s narrative. That moment was one of the few times that night and early morning that Ritenour was alone with Ava. Had the jury heard this evidence, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome would have been different,” he wrote.

Testimony in the trial revealed Ava was found deceased early on the afternoon of January 24. Depositions of Logan Cavan revealed that he and Ritenour both heard Ava on the morning of January 24, at a time the state contended Ava was already deceased. Messamer argued that evidence Ritenour and Cavan heard Ava that morning should have been introduced by her trial counsel but was not. Had this evidence been introduced, Wilson agreed with Messamer’s claim. He wrote that the narrative could have been changed in the minds of the jury had that evidence been introduced to the jury.

“In cases that revolve so centrally around the perception and credibility of the defendant, it is essential that defense counsel provide adequate evidence to dispute a negative characterization of the defendant. Trial counsel did provide character witnesses, but they were insufficient as they lacked recent and personal knowledge of Ritenour,” Wilson wrote. “A case that was predicated upon the jury thinking that Ritenour was a bad mother and unhappy requires a vigorous defense that resists this narrative,” he added.

“It is assumed by the record that it was the State’s theory that Ava had been injured by Ritenour before Ava went to sleep. Evidence that Ava was alive in the morning could seriously call into question that theory. Further, as the case did not have any physical evidence connecting Ava’s death to a killer, the credibility and reputation of the witnesses and Ritenour were crucial. Cavan corroborating Ritenour’s testimony on this issue would have improved her credibility, particularly given Cavan’s importance to the State’s case,” Wilson wrote in agreeing with the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.

Another issue brought up was the matter of Ritenour’s attorney “making a record” in the presence of the jury regarding Ritenour’s failure to provide her trial counsel with materials. During the trial, Ritenour took the stand in her defense. During this time, she stated that she had recorded one of her police interviews but did not have the recording. She further stated that she did not know if her counsel had the recording. After Ritenour was off the stand, her attorney asked to make a “professional statement” regarding Ritenour’s statement.

“He told the jury that he had recently become aware of the recording, but had not heard it. Upon questioning by the State, trial counsel stated that Ritenour had not given him the recording,” Wilson recounts in his ruling.

The professional statement, according to Wilson, constituted ineffective assistance of counsel by her attorney.

“While trial counsel’s statement here did not directly take a position against Ritenour, his statement certainly impugned her. By informing the jury that he had never received the recording, he cast suspicion on Ritenour. Further, the record is clear that the State questioned Ritenour’s trial counsel as a part of his professional statement. Typically, defense counsel would have the opportunity to cross-examine a witness, but as it was Ritenour’s trial counsel on the stand, Ritenour was left unrepresented,” Wilson wrote.

Of the 18 total ineffective assistance of counsel claims, Wilson granted eight of the claims. However, under Iowa Court rules, when a defendant raises multiple claims of ineffective assistance of counsel the court must consider the cumulative effect of the alleged errors. Wilson ruled that the cumulative effect of the claims prejudiced Ritenour.

“Considering all claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, the Court finds that the cumulative effect of trial counsel’s failure to perform essential duties satisfies the prejudice prong of the Strickland standard,” Wilson ruled.

As a result, Wilson ruled that Ritenour should receive a new trial.

“Applicant Alicia Ritenour’s conviction in Mahaska County Cause No. FECR063553 is set aside,” Wilson wrote.

Ritenour’s conviction is the second murder trial conviction to be overturned in Mahaska County in three years. In 2015, Bradley Arterburn had his first-degree murder conviction relating to his 2012 first-degree murder trial overturned after then-Judge Randy DeGeest found that Arterburn too had received ineffective assistance of counsel.

Ritenour will remain in the custody of the Iowa Department of Corrections, pending further proceedings and arraignments with the Mahaska County Sheriff. Bail has been set at $500,000, cash or surety bond. A date for further proceedings on Ritenour’s new trial will be set within the next 35 days.

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Posted by on Dec 16 2018. Filed under Local News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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