May 2008 – Judge: Give assets back to Heemstra

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Des Moines Register. Jeff Eckhoff. May 1, 2008.

Judge: Give assets back to Heemstra

Relatives of slain Milo farmer Tom Lyon will have to return cash and property seized from Rodney Heemstra's family as part of a now-overturned wrongful-death verdict, a Polk County judge has ruled.

However, Judge Michael Huppert also declared that Heemstra is clearly liable for Lyon's death and that Lyon's family will be allowed to push for punitive damages when the case comes up for its second trial in civil court.

The five-year-old lawsuit, which has featured 23 lawyers, could go to trial by the end of this year, Heemstra attorney Joseph Hrvol said.

"I think if you're talking about how the issues have narrowed, I'd say it's narrowed by a lot of things," Hrvol said. "It's narrowed by the newer judgment of conviction, and it's narrowed by this ruling."

Lyon attorney Phil Myers said the case could be ready for a decision by the end of the summer, "and we anticipate a result very similar to what took place the last time."

Heemstra, 48, remains in prison for shooting Lyon in the head in January 2003. Authorities have said the slaying capped a series of confrontations between the two men over land and cattle-watering equipment. Heemstra maintains it was self-defense. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 2003 but was awarded a new trial by the Iowa Supreme Court in 2006 and found guilty of voluntary manslaughter last year.

The second conviction is under appeal.

Lyon's family, who filed the wrongful-death lawsuit in 2003, waited three years before a Warren County judge awarded them $11.5 million — $8.9 million plus interest — in a decision based largely on the murder conviction.

Huppert's ruling issued Monday follows years of appeals and counter appeals in the case. The court fight intensified in October, when a three-judge panel of the Supreme Court declared the initial civil verdict invalid.

Because of Huppert's decision, Lyon's family now must surrender deeds to between $3 million and $4 million in property seized by lawyers to collect the initial judgment. The estate also must pay back more than $929,000 received when a previous judge allowed relatives to seize the $1 million bond that temporarily freed Heemstra while he waited for the second criminal trial.

Court documents show most of that money — all but $150,000 — has been kept in a lawyer's bank account.

State and county agencies also will have to surrender various court fees paid with the remainder of the $1 million.

Huppert's ruling notes that the $1 million was not Heemstra's money but instead was posted by lawyers after Heemstra's relatives obtained a bank loan.

"In light of the fact that there has been no evidence that the defendant is associated with the funds put up for his bail, there is no reason to conclude that they were the proper subject of a garnishment proceeding in the first place," Huppert wrote.

The judge also reinforced the Lyon family's right to ask for punitive damages, which are extra money in a separate award intended to punish defendants.

Huppert rejected claims by Heemstra's lawyers that the latest criminal verdict should allow them to reargue the issue of who is responsible for Lyon's death.

However, Heemstra will be able to argue for a limit on damages because of Lyon's provocation, Huppert said.