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Iowa judges uphold guilty plea in abuse case, but overturn verdict • Iowa Capital Dispatch
Iowa judges uphold guilty plea in abuse case, but overturn verdict • Iowa Capital Dispatch

The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday declined to overturn a woman’s guilty plea in a child abuse case, despite finding several flaws in the guilty plea agreement and sentencing process.

The case stems from Shannon Hightower’s 2020 arrest in Black Hawk County on charges of dependent adult abuse and second-degree theft. According to court records, Hightower, now 39, was given power of attorney over a dependent adult woman who was housed at a Cedar Valley facility. She then misused the woman’s money, opened new credit cards in the woman’s name and then misused those cards.

The victim in the case lost $16,000 because of Hightower’s actions, police claimed.

In January 2022, Hightower signed a written guilty plea to the original charges. The agreement with prosecutors stated that the state would either conduct a pre-sentence investigation or recommend a five-year suspended sentence. The written agreement also included a sentence initialed by Hightower that stated, “If the court does not accept the agreement, I may withdraw my guilty plea.”

At Hightower’s sentencing eleven months later, District Judge Linda Fangman rejected the pea and sentenced Hightower to five years in prison on the grounds that Hightower had failed to pay restitution prior to sentencing.

During sentencing, Hightower immediately expressed her shock at the verdict, telling the judge, “Can I please just have one day? I haven’t even said goodbye to my kids. I had no idea what was happening, Your Honor. I had no idea. I had no… I was told there was a plea deal and that I was going to get five years probation – five years probation.”

After Hightower appealed, Judge Fangman set bail at only $17,000 and ordered the clerk to notify the person who posted the bail that the money would not be refunded but would instead be used to make restitution to the victim in this case.

In its ruling Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court found that before a guilty plea can be accepted, the defendant must be informed of the maximum penalty — including fines — for the crime to which he is pleading guilty. The court found that Hightower’s guilty plea was inaccurate in that it stated that the maximum penalty was zero, not $15,000.

However, the court found that despite this and several other flaws in the agreement, Hightower failed to prove that she would not have pleaded guilty if she had fully understood the situation.

As for Hightower’s sentence, the judges found that Fangman had wrongly based her verdict on Hightower’s refusal to pay damages. “Prior to the verdict, Hightower had not been ordered to pay damages,” the judge noted. “The court’s reliance on Hightower’s failure to comply with a nonexistent order was wrong. Accordingly, a new sentencing is required.”

The justices also concluded that the district judge erred in ordering the forfeiture of the $17,000 appeal bond to provide restitution to the victim – a move the state later admitted violated state law.

The court affirmed Hightower’s conviction, vacated her sentence, and overturned the district court’s decision to impose forfeiture conditions in the case. The judges remanded the case to the district court for another district judge to re-determine the sentence.

Judge McDermott filed a dissenting opinion, which Judge Christensen joined. McDermott wrote that Hightower most likely would not have pleaded guilty if the deficiencies in her plea agreement had not existed, and therefore she should be allowed to withdraw her guilty plea.

“The written plea agreement that the district court accepted in this case was not only confusing, but also factually inaccurate and resulted in the court imposing a much harsher sentence than Hightower reasonably believed the court could impose,” McDermott stated. “As for defects, this confession has a multitude of defects. And those defects go to the heart of the agreement.”

McDermott went on to say that “the Supreme Court’s acceptance of Hightower’s inadequate plea of ​​guilt, after everything we have said in our rules and cases about the continuing need for voluntary and thoughtful admissions of guilt, makes our lofty claims ring hollow.”

By Liam