New Trial in Iowa City Murder Case After Police Use Jailhouse Informants

Iowa case law summary by Attorney Richard Clem: Criminal law, jailhouse informant.

State of Iowa v. Justin Alexander Marshall. IA criminal law, jailhouse informant

Justin Alexander Marshall had been convicted of the 2009 Iowa City murder of John Versypt. He appealed, and the case was ultimately heard by the Iowa Supreme Court.

The appeal involved the admissibility of testimony by jailhouse informants against a defendant who was represented by counsel at the time of alleged confessions to the informants. Because two of the informants had been contacted prior to the statements and could have been expected to benefit by eliciting incriminating information, they were deemed to be state agents. A third informant, however, was characterized as a "jailhouse entrepreneur" and not a state actor.

The next issue was whether these informants had elicited the incriminating testimony. One had asked the defendant "what he was there for." With respect to one informant, the Iowa Supreme Court held that there was an inadequate record. The evidence suggested that when the defendant began speaking, the informant merely listened, interspersed with "ah's and oh's". However, the record was not clear whether there had been additional questions posed by the informant.

With respect to another informant, the court held that statements had been elicited, since the informant had advised the defendant that "you might have to tell your side of the story if you’re going to get a lesser charge." The court held, therefore, that this had not been a mere case of a "passive listener to a heartfelt confession."

For these reasons, the Supreme Court reversed the defendant's conviction of first degree murder and remanded the case.

No. 13-0739 (Iowa June 30, 2016).

Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.


Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

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