CENTERVILLE — The Promise City man a jury found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of a Cedar Falls deer hunter has lost his appeal.
Ethan Landon Davis, now 30, is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole in the killing of Cedar Falls deer hunter Curt Ross. Davis was charged in the November 2017 killing and was found guilty by an Appanoose County jury in February 2019.
Davis represented himself in his appeal to the Iowa Court of Appeals. He presented six arguments:
— That there was insufficient evidence pointing to Davis as the perpetrator.
— That the judge erred in not allowing a specific jury instruction on reasonable doubt.
— That the judge erred in preventing his defense from using the language "hesitate to act" in closing arguments to describe reasonable doubt.
— That the judge allowed the state to shift the burden of proof to Davis.
— That the judge's written sentencing order didn't conform to what the judge said in court.
The Iowa Appeals Court, in their ruling issued Wednesday, said Davis was right on one of those six points: Judge Myron Gookin's written sentencing order did get some things wrong. The rest of the case was decided correctly, the court ruled.
Evidence presented against Davis was sufficient for a conviction on the charge of first-degree murder, a decision the jury arrived at after 11 hours of deliberation.
Davis at trial and in his appeal acknowledged the Ross was killed with premeditation, but denied responsibility.
Davis testified at his trial that he was framed: someone else killed Ross with a gun they stole from Davis and then planted that gun on Davis' parents' property.
"But the jury did not have to believe Davis' claim," the appeals court wrote in a 23-page ruling. They added that while no eyewitnesses place Davis at the scene, there is "strong circumstantial evidence" to support it.
The jury instruction on reasonable doubt was constitutionally adequate, the appeals court ruled.
Davis also argued that the direction to the jury after they reported a deadlock after seven hours of deliberation was improper. The appeals court said the "supreme court has questioned the propriety of giving a verdict-urging instruction," but that such instruction is not an error. The jury in Davis' case deliberated more than four additional hours, signaling the instruction was not coercive to their decision of his guilt.
The appeals court did rule that a new order should be filed to correct slight errors in sentencing. At the hearing, Gookin stated Davis would not be required to pay restitution for court costs or legal assistance fees, though the written order erroneously imposed those items.
Ross was killed on Nov. 24, 2017, in a wooded area near Rathbun Lake. He was shot 10 times and stabbed 26 times. An AR-15 style rifle belonging to Davis was determined by forensic experts to have been the gun that shot Ross. It also had fingerprints from Davis, and DNA blood splatter from Ross on it.
The gun was found hidden under a hay mower attachment on Davis' parents' property by police.
At trial, Davis claimed the rifle had been stolen without his knowledge from his vehicle and said the real perpetrator planted it back on the Davis property to frame him for the murder.
Ross's belongings were never located, and his body was found naked in a creek in the wooded area.