Stanley Liggins, left, talks with defense attorney Aaron Hawbaker during a Feb. 23 pretrial motion hearing in Scott County Court in the 1990 death of 9-year-old Jennifer Ann Lewis of Rock Island.

Prosecutors cannot present evidence of Stanley Liggins' prior sex abuse conviction when he is tried a fourth time in the 1990 death of a 9-year-old Jennifer Lewis, the presiding judge ruled.

Judge Marlita Greve, chief judge of the Seventh Judicial District, said in a 10-page written order filed Tuesday afternoon that evidence of Liggins’ conviction for sexually abusing a 9-year-old Rock Island girl more than a month before Lewis was killed was too prejudicial and is not admissible at this time. 

“If defendant is presented as a sexual molester of children, the jury may find him guilty on that basis alone,” she wrote. “Based on the proper evidence expected, the court finds the prior bad acts are more prejudicial than probative and are inadmissible at this time.”

It’s a ruling she’s made twice before.

However, the judge said in the order that this is a “provisional ruling,” and that the issue may be raised again at trial outside the presence of the jury if prosecutors want to reassert its arguments based on the evidence and arguments at trial.

Liggins, 57, is charged with one count of first-degree murder in the death of Lewis.

Lewis' burning body was discovered in a field near Jefferson Elementary School in Davenport around 9 p.m. Sept. 17, 1990. She had been sexually abused and strangled before being doused with gasoline and set on fire, prosecutors say.

A search for Lewis began when she did not return home after buying a pack of gum for Liggins at a liquor store near her Rock Island home earlier that night.

Liggins, who knew Lewis' mother, Sheri McCormick, and her then-husband, Joseph "Ace" Glenn, was quickly developed as a suspect.

He has long maintained his innocence.

Liggins was tried and convicted twice in the girl's death in 1993 and 1995 and sentenced to life in prison. The Iowa Supreme Court overturned the first conviction, and in November 2013, the Iowa Court of Appeals reversed the second conviction.

He was tried a third time in late August in Black Hawk County Court, where the trial was moved due to pretrial publicity. Greve declared a mistrial after jurors could not arrive at a unanimous verdict.

His fourth trial will begin March 12 in Black Hawk County.

At the time of Lewis’ death, Liggins was free on bond and charged in Rock Island County with sexually abusing a 9-year-old Rock Island County girl.

He was convicted of aggravated criminal sexual abuse in May 1991 and was sentenced to seven years in prison, according to court records. He already had been charged in Lewis’ death at the time of that trial.

Assistant Scott County Attorney Julie Walton filed a motion Jan. 31 asking the judge to reconsider her previous rulings in 2017 and during the most recent trial that barred prosecutors from presenting the evidence.

She argued at a hearing Friday in Scott County District Court that the evidence is relevant to prove motive, intent and identity.

Walton argued that Liggins’ attorney, Black Hawk County Public Defender Aaron Hawbaker, told jurors in his closing argument in the most recent trial that there was no reason for Liggins to sexually abuse and kill Lewis because he was a “nice guy” and that there was no evidence he had any interest in or was morally capable of this type of offense.

The argument was not based on the actual facts of the investigation and exploited the inability of prosecutors to use the evidence to rebut it, she said at the hearing.

Hawbaker argued that nothing has changed since Greve's earlier rulings "to upset the balance that the court found that the evidence that the state intends to introduce is substantially more prejudicial than it is probative."

He further argued that prosecutors failed to establish there is a need for the evidence in light of other available evidence and pointed to the fact that prosecutors twice before were able to win a conviction without that evidence.

Greve said in her written ruling that she believed that motive and intent are legitimate issues in the case. She noted, however, that Liggins’ defense has been that he did not commit any acts against Lewis.

“If the defense continues to assert defendant did not commit this crime, then motive and intent are not disputed factual issues in the case,” she wrote. “On the other hand, if the defense claims defendant had not reason (motive or intent) to commit this crime, that he is a nice guy, that he was just doing a nice thing for a kid, or any similar arguments, that may very well open the door and put both motive and intent at issue in the case as legitimate disputed factual issues.”

Greve said that if the defense raises these issues during the trial and before the case is submitted to the jury “then the court’s analysis is likely to change.”

“Alternately, if the defense makes these improper arguments during closing argument, any remedy up to and including reopening the evidence or a mistrial may be warranted if requested by the state.”

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