Sex Crimes

An Iowa Jury Awards $12 Million in Damages to a Man Who Was Wrongly Imprisoned for Sexual Abuse

A former guidance counselor served six years of a 25-year sentence thanks to a public defender's incompetence.


An Iowa jury yesterday awarded $12 million to a former elementary school guidance counselor who served six years of a 25-year prison sentence after a student accused him of molestation. Donald Lyle Clark's 2010 conviction was overturned in 2016 after he persuaded a judge that his lawyer, who died in 2013, had blatantly failed to do his job properly and that new evidence cast doubt on his accuser's truthfulness.

The case vividly illustrates the perils of relying on the diligence of overtaxed public defenders, especially in rebutting sexual abuse allegations supported by nothing more than an alleged victim's claims. It also suggests that the emotions triggered by such charges can make it difficult for a defendant to get a fair trial even with competent representation.

A 2011 appeals court summary of the case against Clark suggests how shaky it was. During the 2003–04 school year, Clark's accuser, then a fifth-grader who "had been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder and was having some motivation problems," met with Clark once a week for about 20 minutes. The boy, identified as "C.B." in court documents, "became angry and withdrawn after his fifth-grade year" and "began drinking and using drugs in seventh grade." As a teenager, he "engaged in self-harming behavior and attempted suicide." When he was 16, his parents "sent him to a school for troubled youth."

During his stay at the school, C.B. "revealed during a group session that he had been sexually abused" but did not identify an attacker. In a June 2009 email to his parents that became a point of contention in Clark's appeals, he likewise did not say who had molested him, although he said it was not a priest at church, as his parents had suspected. C.B. said he had been "seeing and hearing things," which he thought could be symptoms of "schizophrenia" but his parents had attributed to "spirits." He also mentioned that he was a habitual liar.

The boy later told social workers that Clark had "touch[ed] his genitals over and underneath his clothing" in "two distinct incidents." There were no witnesses and no physical evidence, so the trial came down to the boy's word against Clark's. Yet Clark's public defender, John Robertson, chose not to present any character witnesses. Nor did he ever visit Clark's office, where he could have taken photographs showing that anything happening inside would have been visible to passers-by in a heavily trafficked hallway through a window in the door. Robertson also did not inform Clark about depositions of witnesses who could have testified about the layout of the school, the location of the office, and the line of sight from the corridor.

After the jury convicted Clark of second-degree sexual assault, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. The sentence required him to serve 17½ years before he would be eligible for parole. Clark also was ordered to pay $11,000 in court fees and $67,000 in restitution to C.B.

Clark's initial appeal focused on the June 2009 email, which the prosecution did not share with the defense until five days before the trial, and then only in a redacted version. Clark did not have access to the full text until three days before the trial, and the judge rejected his request for additional depositions in light of the information disclosed in the email. The judge also refused to postpone the trial. Because of an intervening weekend, a dissenting appeals court judge noted in 2011, the trial began "about six business hours after the State finally provided the first written disclosure that the alleged victim believed he was suffering from schizophrenia."

The appeals court nevertheless upheld Clark's conviction, and the Iowa Supreme Court concurred in 2012. Clark then filed a petition for post-conviction relief, arguing that his trial had been compromised by ineffective counsel and that new information showed his accuser was untrustworthy. The latter claim was based on a deposition that C.B. gave as part of a civil case against Clark, during which he admitted that he had lied on the stand during Clark's trial about certain aspects of the case.

In 2016, Johnson County District Judge Sean McPartland agreed that Clark was entitled to a new trial. The Johnson County Attorney's Office instead decided to drop the charges.

McPartland heard testimony from several witnesses, including Steven Exley-Schuman, an investigator in the Iowa City Public Defender's Office. Exley-Schuman said Robertson, who handled 450 to 500 cases a year, "preferred to represent clients at trials in a 'seat of the pants' manner, rather than relying on an organizational scheme." He testified that visiting the crime scene, which Robertson failed to do, was "very important" in preparing a case. Exley-Schuman, who said he had been surprised by Clark's conviction, recalled that Robertson had confessed to him that "he had been ineffective in his representation" of Clark, which Exley-Schuman "testified is not a typical admission made by attorneys at the Public Defender's Office."

McPartland agreed with Exley-Schuman that Robertson's failure to visit and photograph Clark's office or contest the prosecution's misleading description of the setting was inconsistent with his responsibilities as a defense attorney. "In failing to visit the scene of the alleged crime and to take photographs of the crime scene, and in failing to object to the entry of the State's photos of the crime scene," the judge said, Robertson "fell well below an objective standard of reasonableness." He thereby "failed to perform an essential duty owed to his client."

McPartland also concluded that "Robertson's failure to timely inform Mr. Clark about the scheduled discovery depositions, or to obtain and document Mr. Clark's consent to waiver of his presence at the discovery depositions, fell below an objective standard of reasonableness." Likewise his failure to "investigate, discover and introduce character evidence in favor of Mr. Clark at the time of the criminal trial."

Regarding the new evidence of C.B.'s dishonesty, the state admitted it was "undisputed" that C.B. "failed to some extent to uphold his oath at trial." In his civil deposition, McPartland noted, C.B. "testified that he lied under oath at the criminal trial; that he also had lied under oath in a prior deposition in the criminal proceedings; and that he knew he was lying under oath when he did so." Those lies concerned "the very subject which was the basis for the charges—the nature and frequency of sexual contacts initiated by Mr. Clark."

McPartland unsurprisingly thought "the fact that C.B. did not provide completely truthful testimony regarding the alleged incidents of abuse at trial is material to the question of Mr. Clark's guilt." Since "this was primarily a 'he said, he said' case," he noted, "the jury's credibility assessments made with regard to C.B.'s testimony were critical to the outcome."

After McPartland's ruling, the Johnson County Attorney's Office moved to dismiss the charges against Clark "in the interests of justice." Assistant Johnson County Attorney Anne Lahey nevertheless implied that prosecutors were motivated by concern for C.B. "We usually have a lot of victim input into decisions about cases," she told the Des Moines Register, "especially since obviously they're the ones that suffered, and he chose not to go through it again."

The reversal of Clark's conviction and dismissal of the charges made him a free man, relieved him of the obligation to register as a sex offender, and eliminated the state's demand for $67,000 in restitution, although he had already paid $2,000 of that bill, along with $11,000 in court fees. But Clark's exoneration did not restore the six years he lost or compensate him for the ignominy and suffering caused by the state's prosecution and Robertson's egregious failures as a defense attorney.

In 2017, Clark sued the state for violating his right to effective legal counsel, saying Robertson's "negligent representation" resulted in the conviction of a defendant who was "actually innocent." Yesterday's judgment, which included $8 million for "past emotional distress" and $4 million for "future damages," validated that complaint.

"We're grateful that this jury was moved to do justice for and honor a member of their community," said Mel C. Orchard III, one of Clark's attorneys. "This verdict for a good man reinforced my belief that the jury system is the most important part of our democracy."

The jury system, of course, also delivered Clark's conviction, based on the word of a deeply troubled and manifestly unreliable teenager. Even taking into account the substandard defense, it is hard to understand how 12 people could have agreed that the prosecution had proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Their verdict suggests that the lurid and shocking nature of the charges overwhelmed the skepticism they were obligated to apply.

A 1997 study published in the journal Law and Human Behavior examined the attitudes of 849 prospective jurors in 25 Canadian criminal cases involving allegations of sexual abuse. "Knowing only the nature of charges against the accused," the researchers reported, "approximately 36 percent of jurors stated they could not be impartial. Some jurors explained they had been victims of abuse, others expressed fears for children, while others simply stated they could not set aside a presumption of guilt."

Those findings were based on prospective jurors who candidly admitted their "generic prejudice." Given the social pressures of this situation, it seems likely that others were not inclined to recognize or publicly announce that they could not set aside their strong feelings about the alleged crime to fairly determine whether it had actually happened. When enough jurors succumb to those emotions, the presumption of innocence becomes a presumption of guilt that is hard to overcome even with the best lawyer.