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Across the Region: Feb. 2


Iowa State faces federal inquiry on sexual violence cases

A federal agency is investigating whether Iowa State University has responded appropriately to reports of sexual violence against students.

The school confirmed Thursday that the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights is investigating its handling of a 2014 assault of a female student by a male student.

An Oct. 15 letter from the agency to ISU President Steven Leath says investigators will look into whether the school has failed to “promptly and equitably” respond to complaints of sexual violence, including the female student’s report.

Iowa State spokesman John McCarroll said an investigation by campus police has led to a criminal charge against the male student. He says the student faces a disciplinary hearing next month.


Man who made Facebook postings about mass murder wins appeal

An appeals court threw out the harassment conviction Wednesday of an Iowa man who posted disturbing messages and photos about mass murder on Facebook.

Jonathan Elphic of Hampton didn’t admit to facts that supported his February 2014 guilty plea to first-degree harassment, the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled. The decision reinstates the original charges filed against Elphic of first-degree harassment and threat of terrorism, and gives prosecutors the option of seeking to prove them at trial.

Elphic, now 30, was charged after making a series of Facebook posts that referenced killing students at a local high school in November 2013. He posted several pictures of infamous shooters, such as Jared Loughner and James Holmes, as well as bloody bodies and decapitations. One of his friends contacted law enforcement; an intoxicated Elphic was soon arrested.

Elphic told an officer that he believed someone should “shoot up” the school, but that he was not personally threatening to do so, court documents said.

Under a plea agreement, he later acknowledged the photos could be considered annoying or threatening and pleaded guilty to the harassment charge. In court, he denied threatening to kill students. The state dropped the terrorism count.

Elphic received a two-year prison term. On appeal, Elphic argued his lawyer erred in allowing him to plead guilty since there was no factual basis to support the harassment conviction.

The three-judge panel agreed Wednesday, noting that a threat to commit a forcible felony is a crucial element of first-degree harassment. Because Elphic denied he was threatening to kill children, the conviction must be reversed, the panel ruled.


Nebraska needs more rural attorneys, interpreters

Nebraska has a growing need for language interpreters in its courts and faces such a shortage of rural attorneys that more people are opting to represent themselves, the state’s chief justice said Thursday.

The state has taken steps to address both problems, Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican told lawmakers, but he said more work remains. Heavican said the state faces a “major challenge” in Nebraskans who serve as their own lawyers, because many are unfamiliar with the law and procedures.

Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings, an attorney and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the lawyer shortage is especially severe in the northwest corner of Nebraska. Seiler said he’s noticed a large number of non-lawyers trying to represent themselves in divorces and disputes against their neighbors, with mixed results.

Heavican said Nebraska increasingly relies on interpreters for criminal defendants, victims, witnesses and other participants in court hearings.

The state supplied interpreters in 46 different languages for 24,000 appointments last year, a 20 percent increase from the previous year, he said. Heavican said the newest languages sought are Bengali and Telugu, spoken in India; Kirundi, which is used in central and southern Africa; and Sorani, a Kurdish dialect spoken in Iran and Iraq.


Judge won’t delay lawsuit against Nebraska gay marriage

A federal judge won’t delay a lawsuit challenging Nebraska’s gay marriage ban while the U.S. Supreme Court is considering the issue for the country.

District Judge Joseph Bataillon in Omaha declined a delay request from the Nebraska attorney general’s office.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office declined to comment. A brief supporting the state’s motion pointed to a North Dakota federal judge’s decision to do the same thing. The Nebraska attorney who prepared the motion had said he’d appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals if the state were to fail in its effort to delay the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed in November by seven same-sex couples seeking to have their marriages recognized in Nebraska despite the state’s ban passed by voters in 2000. The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska has asked for an injunction that would require the state to recognize same-sex marriages immediately while the lawsuit proceeds.

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Jan. 17 that it would decide whether same-sex couples have a right to marry everywhere in America under the Constitution. The cases will be argued in April, and a decision is expected by late June.


Judge lets oil patch overtime lawsuit proceed

A lawsuit accusing oil-services company Schlumberger Ltd. of failing to pay overtime in North Dakota’s oil patch can move forward, a federal judge says.

Judge Ralph Erickson’s ruling, released Monday, grants conditional class-action status to the suit filed by a former employee of Houston-based Schlumberger, which provides support services for the oil and gas industry. The suit alleges that employees worked more than eight hours a day and 40 hours a week, and that the company used a fluctuating workweek to avoid paying overtime.

Erickson said the class should be limited to employees working at the Williston site. Don Doty, an attorney for the workers, said Tuesday the list of those who would be covered by a class-action is due to be completed in 10 days, and estimated it would number in the hundreds.


Jail selfies lead to charges

A 26-year-old man accused of having a cellphone while incarcerated at the Williams County Correctional Center and posting photos of himself and other inmates to Facebook has been charged with five other crimes.

Kevyn Johannesson was arrested on Jan. 20, about a week after he was released from the jail. He’s accused of stealing an all-terrain vehicle, a gun, tools and other items from a garage in Williams County. He has been charged with two counts each of burglary and theft of property, as well as one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Johannesson was charged earlier this month with felony possession of contraband inside a correctional facility after a detective saw the photos posted to his Facebook page in December.


No new trial for man sentenced to life for homeless killing

A Sioux Falls man sentenced to life in prison for using a shovel to murder another man at a homeless camp will not get a new trial.

The state Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed a lower court’s decision to allow certain hearsay evidence in Eugene Martin’s original trial and upheld his conviction. Martin was sentenced in 2014 to life in prison for killing 45-year-old Robert Thunder Hawk in 2012.

Martin argued in his appeal that the court shouldn’t have allowed three pieces of hearsay evidence including a 911 call during his trial. He also disputed there was enough evidence for a first-degree murder conviction.

Authorities say Martin and Clint Cottonwood were drinking alcohol with Thunder Hawk when Thunder Hawk made comments about Martin’s girlfriend that led to a fight.


Judge in murder trial to allow evidence from 2008 case

A Sioux Falls judge has ruled that similarities in a 2008 assault and rape of a woman and the slaying last year of Kari Anne Kirkegaard can be presented at the trial of the man accused of killing Kirkegaard.

Forty-one-year-old Christopher Kryger has pleaded not guilty to murder, rape and burglary charges in the slaying of the 56-year-old Kirkegaard, who was found dead in her bathtub on March 16, 2014.

Prosecutor Eric Johnson during a Monday court hearing said details of the 2008 case and last year’s case are “strikingly similar.” The 2008 case against Kryger was dismissed, and defense attorney Mark Kadi argued that bringing it up at Kryger’s trial wouldn’t be fair. Judge Mark Salter sided with the prosecution.


Court revokes license of lawyer charged with misconduct

A Wausau lawyer charged with 34 counts of misconduct, including maintaining a sexual relationship with a client and misusing a client’s trust account, will no longer practice in Wisconsin, the state’s highest court decided Wednesday.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed with a referee’s recommendation to revoke Ryan Lister’s license. Lister, who was licensed to practice law in Wisconsin in 1976, had argued that a public reprimand would have been sufficient punishment since he didn’t commit any crimes.

Lister was publicly reprimanded by the state Supreme Court in 1986 for unprofessional conduct. In 2007, his license was suspended on 17 counts of violating Supreme Court rules involving seven investigations. His license was suspended again in 2010 for 60 days on four counts of violating Supreme Court rules.

In 2014, Robert Kinney, a referee in the case, recommended that the state revoke Lister’s license and that Lister make restitution to two of his clients and to the Wisconsin Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection.

“[Lister] would like to portray himself as a person who helps the poor and downtrodden, who oftentimes works on a pro bono basis, and who puts the interests of his clients before his own,” Kinney said in his recommendation. “But to the contrary … (Lister) has shown himself to be a dishonest manipulator of the weak.”

In its decision, the court agreed with Kinney that revocation was an appropriate punishment.

Additionally, the court decided that Lister must pay for his disciplinary proceedings to the tune of more than $28,000. The court also ordered that he pay damages to his clients and to the Wisconsin Lawyer’s Fund for Client Protection totaling more than $11,000.


Appeals court: Protest policy was unconstitutional

A Wisconsin appeals court says a state requirement that singers in the state Capitol obtain a permit was unconstitutional.

The case involves Michael Crute, who was cited for joining in a daily sing-along protest in the Capitol rotunda in July 2013. State rules then prohibited anyone from participating in or watching an unpermitted event in state buildings.

Crute argued the regulations violated his free speech rights. A Madison judge tossed out his ticket in February. The 4th District Court of Appeals upheld that decision on Thursday, ruling the regulations weren’t narrowly written to further a significant state interest.

The state and the American Civil Liberties Union reached a settlement in October 2013 allowing unpermitted events at the Capitol.

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