OTTUMWA — Wapello County has always had a reputation as a tough place to get a conviction. Two mistrials in high-profile murder cases over the past 12 months have reinforced the reputation.
Last spring, Seth Techel’s first trial ended in a hung jury. Earlier this year, Robert Pilcher’s trial ended the same way. In both cases, jurors failed to reach a decision either way, setting the cases up for retrial.
It raises a question: Does a high-profile mistrial alter the prosecution’s approach when faced with a new case in that county?
The Iowa Attorney General’s office declined through a spokesman to comment for this article, citing their plans to retry both cases.
Professor Emily Hughes, a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa’s law school, said there are circumstances where a county’s reputation probably does make a difference. If a charge can be tried in any of several counties, it’s reasonable to think prosecutors might opt to bring charges in a county where convictions are common rather than one in which they have been hard to come by.
But most cases don’t work that way. The vast majority of violent crimes take place in a single location, and that’s where the case must be filed. Does the county’s reputation come into the prosecution’s strategy? That’s unclear.
Hughes said she thinks it, “would certainly enter into their minds,” but that’s different than fundamentally changing their strategy. Knowing juries might be harder to convince and changing the approach in future cases are two different things.
Many felonies involve what the courts call “lesser included offenses.” In some cases juries are allowed to convict on one of those lesser offenses (say, second-degree murder rather than first-degree murder) if they are convinced the defendant committed a crime but aren’t fully persuaded the circumstances match the more serious charge.