When it came time Wednesday to write the
obituary notice for two Winfield girls who died in a multiple
slaying in Iowa, their parents wanted it known that the victims
were not just sisters "but best buddies to the very end."
Martina Napodano, 9, and her sister, Helen, 7,
were found dead Monday in a house in Norwalk, Iowa, a semi-rural
town of 6,178 near Des Moines. They were lying in their pajamas,
side by side in a bed, with gunshot wounds to their heads.
Four other people-their father's friend Mary
Jolene Forsyth and three of her children-also were found dead in
Forsyth's estranged husband was found seriously
wounded in the home, and Iowa investigators were looking into the
possibility that he killed the six victims then attempted to
The Napodano sisters were in the home only by
The girls, on summer vacation from Gary
Elementary School in West Chicago, were visiting their father,
Mark Napodano, manager of a power tool service center in Des
Moines. The divorce between Napodano and Page Brady, the girls'
mother, had been finalized in May by a Minnesota court.
On Sunday night, Mark Napodano left the girls
with Forsyth and her three children, ages 7 to 18, while he went
on a trip.
That night, police said, Forsyth's estranged
husband, Richard Forsyth, 42, a part-time janitor with a record of
committing domestic abuse, went to the house. The Forsyths'
divorce was soon to be finalized, authorities said.
What happened next is not known, but at 1 p.m.
Monday, friends of Mary Jolene Forsyth and her children went to
the home when their phone calls went unanswered. They found six
people dead and Richard Forsyth seriously injured.
In the lush, wooded unincorporated Winfield
neighborhood where the Napodano sisters lived, the news put
neighbors near tears Wednesday and had them unable or unwilling to
discuss the deaths.
The girls had moved with their mother to
Winfield from Minnesota in time to be enrolled for the 1992-93
school year, officials said. The girls also sang in the choir at
Bethany Lutheran Church of Batavia.
In an obituary notice prepared by Yurs-Peterson
Funeral Home in Batavia, the parents said, "Martina and Helen will
be dearly missed by their many friends and family who loved them
deeply. Although Martina and Helen were sisters, they also were
best buddies to the very end."
In Iowa, police have made few definitive
statements about the killings.
Richard Forsyth, whose condition was upgraded
Wednesday to serious from critical at an Iowa hospital, was not
officially described as a suspect, but Norwalk Police Chief
Michael Richardson said he did not believe a killer was on the
Autopsies showed that five of the victims,
including the Napodano sisters, were shot with a small-caliber
revolver and that 11-year-old Jessie Forsyth had been strangled,
according to Iowa authorites.
Those who knew the couple said the Forsyths'
marriage went downhill toward divorce court after the death of
their 7-year-old son, Eric, in a bicycle accident last year.
Visitation for Martina and Helen Napodano will
be from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday at Yurs-Peterson Funeral Home, 209 S.
Batavia Ave., Batavia. Services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at
Bethany Lutheran Church, 8. S. Lincoln St., Batavia.
February 28, 1996
STATE OF IOWA,
RICK WAYNE FORSYTH, APPELLANT
APPEAL FROM DISTRICT COURT,
WARREN COUNTY, DALE B. HAGEN, J. [547 NW2d Page 834]
Heard by Habhab, P.J., and Cady, J., and
McCartney, Senior Judge.[fn*] [fn*] Senior judge from the Second
Judicial District serving on this court by order of the Iowa
The opinion of the court was delivered by:
Habhab, Presiding Judge.
Defendant Rick Forsyth appeals from the
judgment and sentences entered following his convictions on six
counts of first-degree murder. He challenges (1) the sufficiency
of the evidence to support the convictions; (2) the trial court's
finding he was competent to stand trial; (3) the admission of his
wife's journal into evidence; and (4) the exclusion of evidence
regarding his wife's relationship with her brother, Kevin
Rinehart. Following a careful review of each issue, we affirm.
I. Sufficiency of the Evidence.
Defendant argues the State failed to prove
beyond a reasonable doubt he committed first-degree murder. When
reviewing criminal convictions for sufficiency of the evidence, we
review the evidence in a light most favorable to the State. State
v. McGrew, 515 N.W.2d 36, 37 (Iowa 1994). A conviction is
reversed only if there is no substantial evidence in the record
supporting the verdict or the verdict is clearly against the
weight of the evidence. Id. at 37-38. Substantial evidence is
evidence that could convince a rational trier of fact the
defendant is guilty of the crime charged beyond a reasonable
doubt. Id. at 38. A fair inference of guilt with respect to each
element of the crime charged is sufficient to uphold a verdict.
Id. We consider all of the evidence, not merely that supportive of
the conviction, in determining the sufficiency of the evidence to
support a guilty verdict. State v. Robinson, 288 N.W.2d 337,
340 (Iowa 1980).
Defendant was married to Jolene Forsyth. Jolene
had filed a dissolution action in early 1992. The parties were
separated and Jolene had obtained a restraining order against
defendant. Defendant and Jolene had four children. Brian, Nikki
and Jessica resided with Jolene in the family home in Norwalk,
Iowa. The parties' fourth child, Eric, had died in 1990 following
a bicycle accident. The evidence at trial indicated defendant had
not coped well with Eric's death and behaved [547 NW2d Page 835]
obsessively with respect to the family's preservation of Eric's
Martina and Helen Napodano were the daughters
of Mark Napodano, the man Jolene was dating in June 1993. Since
their father had an early appointment scheduled for the next day,
Martina and Helen spent the night of Sunday, June 13, 1993, in
Jolene's care. At approximately 12:30 p.m. on Monday, June 14,
1993, Jolene's brother, Kevin Rinehart, entered the Forsyth home
and found the bodies of Jolene, Brian, Nikki and Jessica lying in
the bed of the master bedroom. Jolene and Brian had been shot to
death. Nikki had been strangled and Jessica had been suffocated.
Forensic evidence suggested the family members had been killed in
other rooms of the home and had been placed in the master bedroom
after their deaths. Defendant was also found in the master bedroom
suffering from gunshot wounds to the head and wrist. The Napodano
girls had been shot to death and were found in a downstairs
There was considerable evidence to establish
defendant was resisting his wife's efforts to obtain a divorce and
had threatened his family's safety. Defendant had told his wife's
first dissolution attorney a divorce would not happen and he would
do whatever he could to stop it from happening. Defendant told one
of his wife's sisters in early 1992 that if he could not have the
family no one else could. In February 1993, Jolene's
sister-in-law, Cindy Rinehart, overheard a telephone conversation
defendant had with his daughter Nikki. During the conversation
defendant told his daughter it would never be over, and if the
family tried running, he would kill all of them. In March 1993,
Jolene's brother John overheard defendant tell Jolene "[y]ou are
bringing this all on yourself. If you don't quit, I will kill you
and the others." Also in March 1993, defendant told Jessica's
former teacher he would kill Jolene and the children before there
would be a divorce.
There was a great deal of evidence to establish
defendant had stalked Jolene and the children. Relatives and
neighbors testified as to defendant's relentless efforts to follow
Jolene and the children and monitor their actions. Numerous times
a day defendant would drive by and/or sit outside Jolene's home
and observe her activities. In September 1992, the police
apprehended defendant when he was prowling around Jolene's home.
Testimony established defendant had engaged in stalking-type
conduct from at least early 1992 through Saturday, June 12, 1993,
when defendant followed his family and the Napodanos as they went
to Des Moines for dinner.
From approximately January 1993 until the time
of the murders, defendant had called Jolene's sister-in-law, Diana
Rinehart, on a daily basis and discussed Jolene, the children, and
the divorce proceedings. Diana testified that within a week or so
before the murders, defendant's calls became more frequent and he
was more upset. She characterized defendant as "obsessed" and said
he was distraught over the fact Jolene had a male friend and was
During the month preceding and the month
following the murders, defendant was involved in, and was
scheduled to be involved in, numerous legal proceedings. Defendant
had been found in contempt of court on May 6, 1993, for entering
his wife's property on two occasions in violation of the
restraining order. As punishment for this contempt, defendant was
ordered to serve fourteen days in jail by August 1, 1993.
Defendant was apparently despondent over being ordered to serve
jail time, as he appeared depressed to his landlord and indicated
to him he did not think he could handle going to jail. Defendant
had also been charged with harassment for making numerous hang-up
phone calls to Jolene in April 1993, and he was scheduled to
appear for trial on that charge on June 28, 1993. In addition to
the May contempt trial and the June phone harassment trial, the
Forsyth's dissolution trial was to be held in July 1993.
Following the murders, two apparent suicide
notes were found, one in the rented room where defendant lived and
the other in the Forsyth home. A handwriting expert testified the
handwriting on each note was that of defendant. The note found in
defendant's rented room repeatedly expressed his desire to stop
all of the pain and save his [547 NW2d Page 836]
family so they could be together. The note
references his son Eric's death and defendant's wish to "save all
of us after Eric's death" so there would be "no more pain." At one
point the note expresses an apology ("I'am (sic) sorry") but "I
have to have my family" (emphasis in original).
The second note, found at the scene of the
murders, also mentioned Eric and includes four references the
family will now be together forever. This note also contains an
apology and an apparent request for God to forgive defendant for
the deaths of the two Napodano girls. At the conclusion of this
note was a list of people and phone numbers, presumably
individuals whom defendant thought should be contacted when the
bodies were discovered.
Defendant claims the State failed to prove he
was the perpetrator of the crimes, and he argues the physical
evidence shows he could not have committed the murders. He
suggests Kevin Rinehart, Mark Napodano, or other unnamed
individuals committed the crimes. Defendant points to numerous
complicated aspects of the evidence in his effort to challenge its
sufficiency. For example, defendant gives considerable weight to
the fact no blood was apparently found on Jessica's hair.
Jessica's head was found upon a pillow which was covered by
defendant's blood. Expert evidence indicated the blood most likely
came from the gunshot wound to defendant's head. Defendant argues
the only way Jessica's head could not have his blood upon it is if
she were placed on the pillow after the blood had dried. Since
expert testimony indicated it was unlikely defendant could have
moved after his head wound was inflicted, defendant argues it is
apparent someone else committed the murders and moved Jessica's
body to the master bedroom.
The State's expert offered an opinion as to why
there might have been no blood on Jessica's hair. He testified
about the possibility of absorption into the pillow and the
streaming of blood into crevices away from Jessica's head. Aside
from this explanation, the absence of blood could have been
explained by the jury simply finding the crime scene photographer
was mistaken when he said he saw no blood on Jessica's hair. See
State v. Phanhsouvanh,
494 N.W.2d 219, 223 (Iowa 1992)
(resolving conflicts in the evidence is for the jury and the jury
could believe all, some, or none of the testimony of the
witnesses). In either case, the purported absence of blood on
Jessica's hair does not undermine the sufficiency of the evidence
to support the convictions.
In challenging the sufficiency of the evidence,
defendant emphasizes the alleged presence outside the upstairs
bathroom at the Forsyth house of a blood type which did not match
any of the victims, the defendant, Mr. Napodano, or Mr. Rinehart.
There was evidence the blood sample was very saturated and had the
smell of urine. The jury may have disregarded evidence of this
blood sample by concluding it was so contaminated as not to be
Defendant raises a concern about the absence of
a blood trail between the bed in the master bedroom and his
blood-stained jeans, which were lying on the floor in the bedroom.
He contends the absence of a blood trail is evidence someone else
(the actual murderer or murderers) removed his jeans from him
after he was shot in the head. This argument presumes the blood
found on defendant's jeans could only have come from his head
wound. Defendant was also shot in the wrist and bleeding from that
wound could explain the presence of blood on his jeans. The
absence of a blood trail between the bed and the jeans is
consistent with defendant's removal of his jeans prior to his
infliction of the head wound.
Defendant also raises a concern about the
absence of blood trails given the number of bodies which were
moved throughout the house. However, there was evidence of a
heavily blood-stained pillow in the master bedroom which was
theorized to have been used by defendant to transport the bodies.
The jury could have found such use of the pillow would explain the
absence of blood trails which would otherwise have been expected
under the circumstances of this case.
Defendant argues the use of gloves and attempts
to clean up the blood evidence are not consistent with the State's
theory he [547 NW2d Page 837]
contemplated suicide. However, the record
reveals defendant had a low-functioning I.Q. He was clearly
unstable and his efforts to conceal some of the evidence at the
crime scene are not necessarily inconsistent with his otherwise
Defendant makes an issue of the fact Martina
Napodano was found wearing both her father's and mother's clothes.
Defendant offered testimony from the Napodano girls' mother, Page
Brady, of threats Mr. Napodano had allegedly made to his
daughters' safety. There was considerable evidence to establish
the dissolution of the Napodano marriage had been quite bitter,
and the jury was free to disregard Ms. Brady's accusations as
those of an angry and hostile ex-spouse. The jury could further
have found it not unusual a nine-year-old child might have
secreted away some of her parents' clothing in order that she
might wear it when she was traveling away from home.
Defendant also points to a phone conversation
Page Brady had with Mark Napodano as evidence Mr. Napodano
committed the murder. A transcript of the conversation reveals Ms.
Brady blamed Mr. Napodano for placing the girls in a dangerous
situation. The jury could reasonably have found Mr. Napodano's
responses to his wife's accusations do not amount to an admission
of guilt but were the sarcastic statements of a father who was
tired of being berated about the deaths of his daughters.
In his effort to challenge the sufficiency of
the evidence, defendant focuses on the statements and testimony of
Kevin Rinehart. Mr. Rinehart, Jolene's brother, discovered the
bodies and gave conflicting statements about what occurred when he
found defendant in the master bedroom. At one point, Mr. Rinehart
believed he and defendant struggled, defendant shot him, and he
shot defendant in the head. Other testimony from a witness at the
scene and the physical evidence do not substantiate this claim.
It was the jury's function to determine
credibility and resolve conflicts in the evidence. The jury could
have found the trauma of finding his sister and her family dead
affected Mr. Rinehart's perception of what occurred. Nothing in
Mr. Rinehart's testimony undermines the sufficiency of the
evidence to support defendant's convictions.
Defendant's appellate counsel has done a
commendable job of citing the evidence which is potentially
exculpatory for defendant. We have reviewed all of the instances
of evidentiary concern raised by defendant and find they were
offset by countervailing evidence offered by the State. Any
unresolved aspects of the evidence (such as the location of the
pen used to write the suicide notes or the location of the key to
defendant's rented room) are not sufficient to overcome the
overwhelming evidence of defendant's guilt.
A review of the record establishes defendant
had the motive to commit the murders and had stalked and
threatened his family for months. Defendant was found at the scene
with a gun in his possession, and he had gunpowder residue on his
hands. A Norwalk police officer testified the gun looked like
defendant's gun which the Norwalk police department had taken into
custody during part of 1991. All nine of the empty casings found
at the crime scene were fired from that gun.
The notes found in defendant's residence and at
the crime scene strongly implicate defendant in the murders. They
were written by him and reflect his desire to unify his family so
they would be together forever with God in heaven. The note found
at the Forsyth home reveals defendant's regret at having killed
the two Napodano girls. Finally, the placement of Jolene and her
three children in the master bedroom is symbolic of defendant's
macabre obsession of reuniting his family at any cost. There was
sufficient evidence to support the convictions.
II. Competency of Defendant.
Prior to trial, defendant filed an application
for a hearing to determine his competency to stand trial. He
argued he had sustained amnesia as a result of the gunshot wound
to his head and was unable to appreciate the charges against him,
understand the proceedings, or effectively assist in his defense.
[547 NW2d Page 838]
Pursuant to Iowa Code section 812.3, a
competency hearing was held by the district court. In its ruling,
the district court found defendant was suffering from amnesia with
respect to the events of June 13 through June 15, and the amnesia
was probably permanent in nature. However, the court concluded
defendant understood the charges and their consequences and was
able to communicate with his counsel and assist in his defense.
The district court found defendant competent and ordered him to
The law presumes an accused is competent to
stand trial. State v. Martens, 521 N.W.2d 768, 770 (Iowa
App. 1994). The burden to prove incompetency rests with the
accused. Id. If the evidence is in equipoise, the presumption of
competency prevails. Id. The conviction of an incompetent
defendant is prohibited by the due process clause and contrary to
the fundamental precept of a fair trial. Id. Our review is de novo
and we consider the totality of the circumstances. Id.
Amnesia about events surrounding a charge does
not automatically render a defendant incompetent to stand trial.
Id. The test of competency to stand trial is whether the accused
appreciates the charge, understands the proceedings, and can
effectively assist in the defense. Id. Dr. Souza testified he had
performed a psychiatric evaluation of defendant and found
defendant was aware of his legal circumstances and had the ability
to comprehend his current legal situation. Officer Hosey, an
officer who guarded defendant while he was hospitalized, testified
he heard defendant have a phone conversation with his father and
defendant explained to his father he understood the State was
attempting to make a case against him for killing his wife and
Upon our de novo review of the record, we
conclude defendant appreciated the charges and understood the
proceedings. We further find defendant could effectively assist in
his defense despite his amnesia. Where most of the State's
evidence is physical in nature, and defendant had access to the
State's files, a defendant's amnesia does not necessarily render
him incompetent to stand trial. See State v. Emerson, 375
N.W.2d 256, 261 (Iowa 1985). Defendant produced a vigorous
defense and challenged the State's physical evidence. Defendant
was able to impressively confront nearly every aspect of the
State's case. We affirm the district court's finding defendant was
able to effectively assist in his defense and was competent to
III. Admissibility of Journal.
Defendant claims the trial court erred in
admitting Jolene's journal pursuant to the hearsay exception of
Iowa Rule of Evidence 804(b)(5). At the instruction of her
dissolution attorney, Jolene had kept the journal to record
incidents when defendant called, visited, or followed her and her
The hearsay exception provisions of Rule
804(b)(5) should apply only when there is significant indicia of
reliability. State v. Nance, 533 N.W.2d 557, 559 (Iowa
1995). Admissibility of such hearsay requires findings of
trustworthiness, materiality, necessity, notice, and service of
the interests of justice. See State v. Brown, 341 N.W.2d 10,
14 (Iowa 1983).
We review the admission of hearsay evidence
only for an abuse of discretion. See State v. Maniccia, 355
N.W.2d 256, 260 (Iowa [547 NW2d Page 839]
App. 1984). The parties strongly dispute the
trustworthiness of Jolene's journals. The State argues records
kept by a client pursuant to her attorney's direction are
trustworthy and reliable. Defendant contends the journals were
inherently untrustworthy as they were prepared in anticipation of
litigation (the parties' divorce) and Jolene would have had a
motive to lie about defendant's conduct in order to further her
interests in the dissolution proceedings.
We need not resolve this question as we find,
even if the journal was erroneously admitted, the error was
harmless. When an alleged error is not of constitutional
the test of prejudice [for harmless error
purposes] is whether it sufficiently appears that the rights of
the complaining party have been injuriously affected or that the
party has suffered a miscarriage of justice.
State v. Traywick, 468 N.W.2d 452,
454-55 (Iowa 1991) (quoting State v. Massey, 275 N.W.2d 436,
439 (Iowa 1979)). A review of the journal reveals most of the
entries therein were merely duplicative of testimony offered at
trial by family members, neighbors, and law enforcement officials.
The journals reflect the obsessive nature of defendant's calls to,
and monitoring of, Jolene and her children. Admission of the
journal did not prejudice defendant.
IV. Exclusion of Evidence.
Defendant's final argument is the trial court
erred in excluding evidence he wished to introduce regarding a
purported motive Kevin Rinehart had to kill Jolene and her
children and to be biased against defendant. Kevin and his wife,
Diana, were involved in dissolution proceedings at the time of the
murders, and the issue of custody of their children was in
dispute. During the course of their dissolution proceedings,
Kevin's wife had completed an affidavit in which she raised a
concern about Kevin and Jolene's relationship. Mrs. Rinehart based
her allegation on something Jessica Forsyth had allegedly told her
father and which defendant had then repeated to Diana. Defendant
contends an upcoming homestudy custody evaluation could have
motivated Kevin to kill Jolene and her family so the allegation
could not be verified and could not affect his chance of obtaining
custody of his children. Defendant attempted to bolster his claim
by offering evidence pertaining to therapy sessions Jolene had
with a psychologist from 1985 until 1987. The trial court excluded
all evidence pertaining to these matters.
Trial courts have considerable discretion in
determining the admissibility of evidence and our review of the
trial court's decision to exclude the evidence proffered by
defendant is limited to an abuse of that discretion. See State v.
Oliver, 341 N.W.2d 25, 32 (Iowa 1983). We have reviewed the
evidence defendant wished to offer and find no abuse of discretion
in its exclusion by the trial court. The evidence was
unsubstantiated hearsay of a highly prejudicial nature with little
relevance to the case. We affirm its exclusion.
United States Court of Appeals
For the Eighth Circuit
Forsyth v. Ault II
John AULT II, Warden, Anamosa State Penitentiary, Appellee.
August 08, 2008
Before WOLLMAN, BEAM, and RILEY, Circuit Judges.
Unes J. Booth, argued, Osceola, IA, for appellant.Thomas
William Andrews, argued, Des Moines, IA, for appellee.
Ricky Wayne Forsyth was convicted by an Iowa
jury in April 1994 of first-degree murder for the deaths of his
estranged wife, his three children, and two children of his wife's
boyfriend. His conviction was affirmed on direct appeal. Iowa
v. Forsyth, 547 N.W.2d 833 (Iowa Ct.App.1996). On appeal from
the denial of Forsyth's application for post-conviction relief,
the Iowa Court of Appeals rejected his claim that he had been
denied the effective assistance of counsel by reason of counsel's
failure to adequately argue that Forsyth was not competent to
stand trial and by raising a factual defense rather than one based
on insanity or diminished responsibility. The court also
rejected Forsyth's claim that his appellate counsel was
ineffective for failing to raise these issues on appeal. Forsyth
v. Iowa, 03-1378, 2004 WL 1161614 (Iowa Ct.App. May 26, 2004).
Having exhausted his remedies under Iowa law, he filed suit in
federal district court for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C.
§ 2254, alleging that the performances of his trial counsel and
appellate counsel were so inadequate that they deprived him of his
Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Forsyth now appeals from the
district court's 1
denial of his requested relief. We affirm.
On June 14, 1993, Forsyth was found lying on
the floor of his wife's bedroom, with the bodies of his wife and
their three children lying on the bed therein. He had gunshot
wounds to his head and wrist. Forsyth now suffers from amnesia
and cannot remember much of what occurred on June 13-15, including
any events related to the murders.
Dr. William Robert McMordie, a clinical
neuropsychologist, interviewed Forsyth four times in June and July
of 1993, altogether spending about seven and one-half hours with
him. Dr. McMordie informed trial counsel that, in his
professional opinion, Forsyth was competent to stand trial and
that Dr. McMordie's evaluation of Forsyth did not support an
Dr. Loren Olson, a psychiatrist, saw Forsyth on
about ten occasions while he was still in the hospital following
the murders and before he was indicted. Dr. Olson testified that
Forsyth understood the gravity of his legal situation. Dr. Olson
also stated that if a defendant is amnesic for the events
surrounding an alleged crime, it is impossible to determine
whether he understood the nature and quality of his actions or
whether he had the mental capacity to know the difference between
right and wrong.
Dr. Mark Souza, a psychiatrist, stated that
Forsyth's amnesia was real and would prevent him from testifying
about the events of June 14, 1993. Dr. Souza also testified that
Forsyth was aware of his legal circumstances and that Dr. Souza
knew of no impairment to Forsyth's ability to communicate with his
counsel other than the amnesia. Dr. Souza stated that he could
not form an opinion to a reasonable degree of medical certainty
about possible conditions of insanity or diminished responsibility
because Forsyth had no memory of his mental state regarding the
events of June 14, 1993, and because the other available evidence
of Forsyth's state of mind was insufficient to form the basis of
an opinion regarding those matters.
Dr. Michael Taylor, a psychiatrist retained by
the state, evaluated Forsyth on October 8, 1993. It was his
opinion that Forsyth was not suffering from any type of mental
disease or defect at the time of the murders and that he was
capable of distinguishing between right and wrong at that time.
Although Dr. Taylor did not directly communicate his opinions to
trial counsel before Forsyth's trial, trial counsel assumed from
the fact that the state did not call him to testify at the
competency hearing that Dr. Taylor agreed that Forsyth was
competent to stand trial.
Dr. William S. Logan, a forensic psychiatrist,
interviewed Forsyth for about six hours on October 5, 2001, and
reviewed a number of documents related to the trial and some other
documents possibly relevant to Forsyth's psychological state. He
opined that Forsyth was not competent to stand trial. He further
opined that Forsyth suffered from a major depressive disorder
complicated by psychotic features at the time of the murders and
that this mental disease prevented him from being able to tell the
difference between right and wrong or to appreciate the nature and
quality of his conduct.
Prior to the murders, Forsyth had had extensive
contact with psychological professionals. A psychological report
completed following the murders indicated that Forsyth had
received psychotherapy since 1977 for anger and violent impulses,
marital and family problems, and general depression. It is
unclear how regular Forsyth's visits were in the 1980s, but after
his youngest son died in a bicycle accident in 1990, he was placed
on an anti-depressant medication, in addition to receiving ongoing
counseling. After Forsyth pleaded guilty to assaulting his
sixteen-year-old son with a paddle in 1991, the school board asked
Dr. Taylor to evaluate whether Forsyth should be reinstated as a
bus driver. Dr. Taylor reported no evidence of any psychiatric
disorder and recommended that Forsyth be reinstated. The
psychologist that Forsyth was seeing noted in December 1992 that
Forsyth had been chronically depressed for at least one year.
Forsyth completed a Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory
(MMPI II) test in May 1993, apparently in connection with
impending divorce and custody proceedings. The results were
evaluated by two psychologists, one in 1993 and one in 2003, both
of whom said that the results were not consistent with either
major depressive disorder or any other major psychiatric illness.
As recounted earlier, the Iowa Court of Appeals
rejected the claims raised in Forsyth's appeals from the denial of
post-conviction relief. In the present proceeding, the district
court held that the Iowa court had not unreasonably applied any
federal law, nor had it unreasonably found any facts in light of
the evidence before it. Forsyth v. Ault, No. 4-04-CV-00567-REL
(S.D.Iowa July 30, 2007).
We review a district court's conclusions of law
de novo and its findings of fact for clear error. Malcom v.
Houston, 518 F.3d 624, 626 (8th Cir.2008).
A state prisoner is entitled to a writ of
habeas corpus from a federal court only if the state court
decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application
of, clearly established Federal law,” or “was based on an
unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence
presented in the State court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).
Thus, the state court's decision must be objectively
unreasonable, and not merely incorrect, for us to grant the writ.
Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75-76, 123 S.Ct. 1166, 155
L.Ed.2d 144 (2003). We presume that the state court's findings
of fact are correct, and the prisoner has “the burden of rebutting
the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.”
28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).
A defendant's Sixth Amendment right to counsel
is violated if counsel's performance was so inadequate that the
resulting breakdown in the adversarial process undermines
confidence in the result of the proceeding. Bell v. Cone, 535
U.S. 685, 695, 122 S.Ct. 1843, 152 L.Ed.2d 914 (2002). Counsel's
performance is constitutionally deficient if it is objectively
unreasonable and results in actual prejudice. Malcom, 518 F.3d at
626. Prejudice exists only if there is a reasonable probability
that the outcome would have been different had counsel's
performance been adequate. Id. There is a strong presumption that
counsel's strategic choices were reasonable. McGurk v. Stenberg,
163 F.3d 470, 473 (8th Cir.1998).
A. Competency to Stand Trial
Forsyth argues that his trial counsel was
constitutionally ineffective for failing to argue adequately that
he was incompetent to stand trial. A defendant is incompetent to
stand trial if he is unable to understand the charges he faces and
the consequences involved or he is unable to communicate with
counsel “with a reasonable degree of rational understanding.”
Cooper v. Oklahoma, 517 U.S. 348, 354, 116 S.Ct. 1373, 134
L.Ed.2d 498 (1996). A defendant is presumed competent and bears
the burden of proving otherwise. Iowa v. Rieflin, 558 N.W.2d 149,
152 (Iowa 1996); see Cooper, 517 U.S. at 355, 116 S.Ct. 1373
(noting that such rules are not proscribed by the Constitution).
Trial counsel's primary argument at Forsyth's
trial-competency hearing was that Forsyth's amnesia rendered him
unable to assist in his own defense. At Forsyth's
post-conviction relief hearing, trial counsel testified that the
mental health experts were asked generally about Forsyth's
competency and that they focused on his amnesia as bearing on that
question. Despite the expert testimony that Forsyth's amnesia
was real, amnesia alone is not sufficient under Iowa law to
establish incompetency to stand trial. See Iowa v. Emerson, 375
N.W.2d 256, 261 (Iowa 1985). Accordingly, the Iowa court
rejected Forsyth's claim.
Forsyth now contends that trial counsel was
ineffective for failing to argue that Forsyth's delusion that his
family was still alive rendered him incompetent to stand trial.
Evidence of Forsyth's delusions was actually before the Iowa
court, however, and based on the evidence available to trial
counsel, there was no reason to emphasize Forsyth's delusions.
At the post-conviction relief hearing, trial counsel stated that:
[I]n my personal dealings with Rick, there was
never any indication of the type of delusional thinking [that he
demonstrated] at the time he was in the hospital. It was also
explained to me that with the passage of time, the healing, those
symptoms would go away, and they did. He was aware that his wife
and children were dead all the time I dealt with him.
J.A. at 712-13. The testimony of the mental
health professionals who examined Forsyth support trial counsel's
statement that the delusions faded with time. Dr. Olson
testified that while he was in the hospital, Forsyth initially
believed that his family was not dead, but that as time progressed
he began to speak more about the reality of the situation. Dr.
McMordie testified that Forsyth was at times delusional that his
family was still alive, but that at other times he accepted the
reality of the situation. Dr. McMordie stated this kind of
confusion is not unusual following a head injury. Dr. Taylor
testified that during his interview with Forsyth in October 1993,
Forsyth expressed no delusional thinking and was well aware that
his family was dead. The picture presented by this testimony
indicates that there was no need for trial counsel to conduct any
further inquiry into the matter of Forsyth's initial delusions.
Notwithstanding Forsyth's claim of ongoing
delusions, the Iowa Court of Appeals held that any argument that
Forsyth was incompetent to stand trial by reason of another mental
defect would have been futile. Forsyth v. Iowa, 03-1378, 2004 WL
1161614, at *3 (Iowa Ct.App. May 26, 2004). As indicated above,
Forsyth was examined in varying degrees by a psychologist and
three psychiatrists. Although Drs. McMordie, Olson, and Souza
believed that Forsyth's amnesia was real, neither they nor Dr.
Taylor expressed any belief that Forsyth was mentally unable to
comprehend his legal situation or to communicate rationally with
his counsel. Drs. McMordie and Taylor specifically opined that
Forsyth was competent to stand trial, while both Dr. Olson and Dr.
Souza believed that he understood his legal situation. None of
these mental health professionals pointed to Forsyth's delusions
as being of importance with respect to his competence to stand
That Forsyth was able in 2001 to obtain a
psychiatrist, Dr. Logan, who was willing to testify that Forsyth
was unable to understand the nature of the proceedings against him
or to rationally communicate with his counsel does not make trial
counsel's conduct unreasonable. See Marcrum v. Luebbers, 509
F.3d 489, 511 (8th Cir.2007). Trial counsel is not required by
the Sixth Amendment to continue shopping for a psychiatrist until
a favorable opinion is obtained. Id. Further, given the weight of
psychiatric opinion on Forsyth's competence, Dr. Logan's testimony
is unlikely to have swayed the trial court even if he had
testified at the competency hearing. In light of trial counsel's
own observations and the above-described expert opinions, trial
counsel was not objectively unreasonable in choosing not to argue
that Forsyth's initial delusions rendered him incompetent to stand
trial. Accordingly, the district court did not err by finding
that the Iowa courts' rulings were not unreasonable regarding
either the facts or the applicable federal law.
B. Mental Defect Defenses
Forsyth argues that his trial counsel was
constitutionally inadequate because he failed to reasonably
investigate and present the insanity and the diminished
The Iowa Court of Appeals held that trial
counsel's “investigative conclusions were consistent with the
relevant expert opinions available at the time counsel made this
strategic decision [to not pursue the insanity and the diminished
responsibility defenses].” Forsyth v. Iowa, No. 03-1378, 2004 WL
1161614, at *3. Trial counsel's strategic decisions are “virtually
unchallengeable unless they are based on deficient investigation,
in which case the ‘presumption of sound trial strategy ․ founders
on the rocks of ignorance.’ ” Link v. Luebbers, 469 F.3d 1197,
1204 (8th Cir.2006) (quoting White v. Roper, 416 F.3d 728, 732
(8th Cir.2005)) (omission in original). One of trial counsel's
strategic decisions is that of “reasonably deciding when to cut
off further investigation.” Winfield v. Roper, 460 F.3d 1026,
1034 (8th Cir.2006).
Trial counsel had several reasons for choosing
to pursue a defense of factual innocence and not an insanity
defense. First, he believed that there was sufficient evidence
to create a reasonable doubt regarding Forsyth's guilt. The
exculpatory evidence included a blood stain that did not match any
victim or Forsyth, a medical examiner's testimony that the
physical evidence suggested that one person could not have
committed all the murders, a tape-recorded conversation in which
Mrs. Forsyth's boyfriend (and the father of the two non-Forsyth
children who were murdered) told his ex-wife that he had killed
their children, and an initial claim by Mrs. Forsyth's brother,
who discovered the bodies, that he had shot Forsyth and had been
shot in the leg in return. Trial counsel testified that Forsyth
was adamant that he could not have killed his family and that
Forsyth did not want to utilize a defense based upon an admission
that he had committed the murders but had been insane at the time.
Additionally, none of the mental health professionals who had
interviewed Forsyth expressed an opinion that Forsyth was legally
insane at the time of the murders. See Marcrum, 509 F.3d at 511
(“The very fact that [the psychologist's] interpretation of the
record was consistent with [the state psychiatrist's] would have
given [trial counsel] every reason to believe that both experts
were making a correct analysis of the medical records.”). Trial
counsel spoke with persons who knew Forsyth well, none of whom
believed Forsyth had suffered from a mental disease or defect
prior to the murders. Further, the MMPI II test completed
shortly before the murders did not indicate that Forsyth suffered
from any major psychological disorders. Finally, trial counsel
had had many years of experience in the area of criminal defense
and was aware that insanity defenses are rarely successful in the
best of circumstances, and that such a defense in Forsyth's case
would not be, given the existing expert opinion on the issue.
Trial counsel noted that pursuing alternative defenses claiming
that, “I did not do it, but if I did I was insane,” can have the
disadvantage of appearing to concede the factual innocence claim.
Forsyth argues that trial counsel's failure to
investigate the insanity and the diminished responsibility
defenses rendered his choice not to raise these defenses
uninformed and perforce unreasonable. We have held, however,
that “[w]here counsel has obtained the assistance of a qualified
expert on the issue of the defendant's sanity and nothing has
happened that should have alerted counsel to any reason why the
expert's advice was inadequate, counsel has no obligation to shop
for a better opinion.” Marcrum, 509 F.3d at 511. Forsyth
asserts that the experts who examined him lacked the requisite
training to assist him because they were clinical, not forensic,
mental health experts. Forsyth presents neither a factual basis
for differentiating categorically between clinical and forensic
psychiatrists or psychologists nor any legal authority for this
The defense of diminished responsibility
permits the defendant to offer proof that he lacked the mental
capacity to form the specific intent to commit the crime charged.
See Iowa v. Gramenz, 256 Iowa 134, 126 N.W.2d 285, 287-90 (Iowa
1964). Trial counsel was not ineffective in investigating this
defense, because even Dr. Logan, Forsyth's expert on appeal,
stated that Forsyth did not lack that capacity.
In light of the experts' opinions and the
results of the May 2003, MMPI II test, there is no basis to hold
that trial counsel's investigation of possible mental illness
defenses was constitutionally inadequate. Accordingly, trial
counsel was not objectively unreasonable in not pursuing further
inquiry into possible mental defect defenses. Forsyth has not
overcome the presumption of adequacy and reasonableness applied to
trial counsel's strategic decisions, and the district court thus
did not err in finding that the state court's decision was not
unreasonable regarding either the facts or the federal law.
Because Forsyth has alleged no grounds in
support of his claim of ineffective assistance of his appellate
counsel beyond those alleged against his trial counsel, that claim
The judgment is affirmed.
Honorable Ronald E. Longstaff, United States District Judge for
the Southern District of Iowa.
WOLLMAN, Circuit Judge.