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Rick Wayne FORSYTH





Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: Parricide
Number of victims: 6
Date of murders: June 14, 1993
Date of arrest: Same day (suicide attempt)
Date of birth: June 30, 1950
Victims profile: Jolene Forsyth, 39, three of her children, Brian, 18; Nikki, 17, and Jessica, 11, and two children Mrs. Forsyth was baby sitting, Martina Napodano, 9, and Helen Napodano, 7
Method of murder: Shooting - Strangulation
Location: Norwalk, Iowa, USA
Status: Sentenced to six sentences of life imprisonment in 1994

United States Court of Appeals
For the Eight Circuit

Rick Wayne Forsyth v. John Ault II, Warden

Norwalk, June 14, 1993

A Norwalk woman, Jolene Forsyth, 39, and three of her children, Brian, 18; Nikki, 17, and Jessica, 11, along with two children Mrs. Forsyth was baby sitting, Martina Napodano, 9, and Helen Napodano, 7, were found shot to death in the Forsyth home in Norwalk.

Mrs. Forsyth's estranged husband, Rick Forsyth, 42, also of Norwalk, was found in the home critically wounded with a self-inflicted gunshot to the head.


Slain Girls Were More Than Just Sisters

By Peter Kendall and Art Barnum -

June 17, 1993

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 the home.

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 commit suicide.

The Napodano sisters were in the home only by chance.

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 loose.

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.


Court of Appeals of Iowa

February 28, 1996



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 Supreme Court.

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 memory.

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 bedroom.

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 dating.

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 significant.

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 irrational behavior.

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 stand trial.

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 children.

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 stand trial.

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 family.

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 magnitude,

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

Ricky Wayne FORSYTH, Appellant,
John AULT II, Warden, Anamosa State Penitentiary, Appellee.

No. 07-2839

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.

I. Background

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 insanity defense.

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).

II. Discussion

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 trial.

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 responsibility defenses.

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 proposition.

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 likewise fails.

The judgment is affirmed.


1.   The Honorable Ronald E. Longstaff, United States District Judge for the Southern District of Iowa.

WOLLMAN, Circuit Judge.


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