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IOWA SUPREME COURT

Iowa Supreme Court upholds Cahill conviction in death of Corey Wieneke

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The Iowa Supreme Court has upheld the second-degree murder conviction of Annette Dee Cahill, whom a Muscatine County jury found guilty in the beating death of 22-year-old Corey Wieneke on Oct. 13, 1992.

Cahill, 59, was convicted of second-degree murder on Sept. 19, 2019. During a sentencing hearing on November 22, 2019, in Muscatine County District Court, District Court Judge Patrick McElyea sentenced Cahill to the mandatory 50-year prison sentence.

Second-degree murder is considered a forcible felony under Iowa law. Cahill must serve 70%, or 35 years, of her sentence before she becomes eligible for parole.

The case was appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals, which confirmed Cahill’s conviction. The case then moved to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Cahill was prosecuted and convicted after new evidence surfaced in what had been a cold case. Cahill, then 29, and Wieneke, 22, had been involved in a relationship. The prosecution argued that Cahill and Wieneke had an argument about him seeing another woman the night before his body was discovered.

The Wieneke homicide case went cold until 2017 when Jessie Becker approached investigators about a confession she overheard when she was a child. Becker said she overheard Cahill say, "I'm sorry I killed you, Corey," in a darkened room of the house where Cahill was living and Becker, then 9 years old, was sleeping over with friends.

The first first-degree murder trial of Cahill took place in March 2019 and ended in a hung jury. The second trial began the week of Sept. 9, and the state presented the jury with new testimony. In the second trial, Cahill was convicted of second-degree murder.

In Cahill's appeals to the Iowa Court of Appeals and Iowa Supreme Court, her attorney, Elizabeth Araguas of Cedar Rapids, challenged the district court’s refusal to conduct DNA tests on four hairs found on Wieneke’s hand at the crime scene. Araguas argued a Brady violation. The Brady rule requires prosecutors to disclose materially exculpatory evidence in the government's possession to the defense.

In writing the opinion for the Iowa Supreme Court, Justice Edward Mansfield noted that Cahill’s attorneys were aware of the existence of the hairs before trial. Presumably they were still available for DNA testing.

“Evidently, they preferred to argue that the unidentified human hair created additional uncertainty as to how thorough the State’s investigation had been, whether there had been a struggle, and who the true killer was,” Mansfield said. “It is difficult to see how this calculation would have been any different if Cahill’s attorneys had known before trial that the prevalent form of DNA testing could not be performed, even if they had known a less specific form of testing possibly could be performed.

“Of course, after Cahill was convicted, all bets were off,” Mansfield wrote. “At that point, Cahill was looking for any path to a new trial.”

Additionally, Mansfield said the Iowa high court has ruled that a defendant is not entitled to a new trial on the basis of newly discovered evidence where the defendant was aware of the evidence before the verdict but made no affirmative attempt to obtain the evidence or offer the evidence into the record.

Araguas also argued that the case should have been dismissed because of the 26-year delay, arguing that Cahill’s defense was hampered because certain individuals who had given law enforcement information about other suspects were no longer available. In particular, according to Cahill’s investigator, nine people who previously had information on six other suspects had either died or suffered from diminished memory by 2019.

However, Mansfield said in his ruling that for the most part, these individuals had only offered secondhand hearsay and rumors, and their stories contradicted each other.

“Cahill does not claim that any specific individual would have saved the day for her; at most she claims that her ‘ability to present a complete defense was meaningfully impaired by her inability to investigate the statements made by these witnesses’ and her ‘inability to thoroughly investigate and possibly interview these deceased suspects meaningfully impaired her ability to present a complete defense,’” Mansfield said.

Araguas also questioned the admissibility of witness testimony, namely that of Becker and her mother and later that of Scott Payne, who in 1996, told investigators with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation that he had witnessed Cahill burning a bunch of stuff after Wieneke was killed.

In a re-interview, Payne recalled seeing Cahill burning bloodstained clothing in a barrel. Cahill claimed the clothes she burned had paint on them, but Payne, who worked butchering hogs for IBP, believed there was blood rather than paint on the clothes.

Both Mansfield for the Supreme Court, and the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled that these were not valid arguments for admissibility because the reliability of testimony is left to the jury.

Araguas also questioned the sufficiency of the evidence in Cahill’s case. In this argument, she said the state never produced physical evidence connecting Cahill to the crime; never produced an eye-witness to the crime; never produced an eye-witness placing her with the weapon, a baseball bat; nor a witness who was aware of any plan to kill Wieneke.

The Court of Appeals ruled that while the evidence against Cahill was not overwhelming, the court could not find that it fell short of the substantial evidence threshold.

In his opinion, Mansfield said that, “On our review of the record, we find sufficient evidence to sustain the conviction.”

Mansfield said, “Becker’s testimony as to Cahill’s confession was corroborated by Cahill’s admitted presence at the Hotz-Wieneke home near the time of the murder and Payne’s testimony that he saw Cahill burning bloody clothes.”

Some other points are worth noting, Mansfield said.

“The forensic and photographic evidence strongly suggests that Wieneke had been struck fatally in the back of his head while he was asleep or incapacitated. So the physical dimensions of his assailant would not have mattered as much," Mansfield said.

“Also, the State’s most important witness, Becker, had an impressive life history as an ICU charge nurse and an officer in the Army Reserve while raising a family,” Mansfield said.

“Perhaps of greater significance to the jury, her testimony was relatable,” he added. “The actions of 9-year-old Becker and the memories that stuck out in her mind were in line with what one would expect from a child that age.

"Also, Becker did not seem to have a vested interest in the outcome of the trial; she just happened to have met an agent who worked cold cases and told her story," Mansfield said. "On top of that, Becker’s mother confirmed that Becker had been consistent in her story since 1992.”

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