- Associated Press - Friday, May 5, 2017

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - An Iowa businessman twice convicted of ordering the 2004 murder of a friend who had an affair with his wife was granted a third trial Friday by a divided Iowa Supreme Court.

Vernon Huser, who had been serving a life sentence, should have been able to admit potentially powerful testimony suggesting a different motive in Lance Morningstar’s killing, the court ruled 4-3.

The decision overturned Huser’s first-degree murder conviction and means the 70-year-old will likely soon be free again on bond pending a new trial.

Prosecutors argue that Huser was enraged after learning that Morningstar, a family friend, had been having an affair with his wife in 2003. Huser and his wife, who had built a large trash hauling business called Ankeny Sanitation, got a divorce the next year. Prosecutors contend that Huser directed another man, a drinking buddy and former sex offender named Louis Woolheater, to kill Morningstar for revenge.

Morningstar, a county road worker, vanished in September 2004. His body was found in a wooded area near Woolheater’s home in Altoona months later. Investigators believe that Woolheater, who was convicted separately and is serving life in prison, shot and killed Morningstar and disposed of the body.

Huser has maintained his innocence, noting that investigators turned up no evidence that he paid Woolheater. He argued that Morningstar, an alleged bookie who lived with a troubled son, could have had other enemies with motive to kill him.

Huser was first convicted in 2010. The Iowa Court of Appeals overturned his conviction in 2012, ruling that the most compelling statements alleging that Huser directed Woolheater to kill Morningstar came from people who had spoken to Woolheater and were inadmissible hearsay. Jurors convicted Huser again after a 2013 retrial, and he’s been serving his sentence at the Anamosa State Penitentiary.

The court’s majority concluded Friday that Huser’s second trial was tainted, too - this time by evidence that was not admitted.

Justice Brent Appel wrote that a judge erred when he barred testimony from a girlfriend who claims Woolheater told her that he and two other men had to “take care” of Morningstar because he had information that could send Woolheater back to prison. The girlfriend, Michelle Zwank, claimed Woolheater said one of the men “made one hell of a shot” that killed Morningstar.

Zwank was a key witness, testifying that she drove with Woolheater to Morningstar’s house on the day Morningstar vanished and loaded what appeared to be a body into her truck.

The judge ruled that allowing her to testify that Woolheater had an independent motive to want Morningstar dead would have opened the door to the hearsay testimony about Huser’s alleged motive that had already been ruled inadmissible.

Appel said Zwank’s testimony should have been admitted on its own.

“It would have given Huser a powerful argument, namely that Woolheater acted to save his own skin rather than at the direction or encouragement of Huser,” Appel wrote.

Dissenting Justice Edward Mansfield said Huser’s conviction should stand. He said it’s illogical to allow Huser to introduce “the one Woolheater statement that might have suggested Woolheater acted out of a personal motive while prohibiting the state from introducing the four Woolheater statements that suggested Woolheater was acting at the behest of the defendant.”


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