June 25 2009 – Heemstra Trial

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Des Moines Register. William Petroski. June 25, 2009

June 25 2009 - Heemstra Trial

A lawyer for former Milo farmer Rodney Heemstra, convicted of killing his neighbor six years ago, wants to ban the public from a civil court trial related to the slaying.

Christine Sand of Guthrie Center, who represents Heemstra, filed the motion last week in Warren County District Court. She is requesting a closed trial in a case in which slain farmer Tom Lyon's estate accuses Heemstra and his relatives of conspiring to commit fraud to avoid the payment of a $5.68 million wrongful death judgment.

Sand has claimed the case will involve confidential information and its disclosure would lead to "substantial damage to the defendants' property rights." The only reasonable alternative is to bar the public from the courtroom, she said.

District Judge Paul Huscher hasn't ruled on the motion to close the trial, which is scheduled to begin July 6 in Indianola. But Donald Beattie, an attorney for Lyon's estate, said he will strongly object to Sand's request.

"I think there is a constitutional right for the media to be present, and the judicial system should be one that is open to the public," Beattie said.

It's unusual for a lawyer to try to close such a trial to the public, said Herbert Strentz, Drake University journalism professor emeritus and the former executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He doesn't believe the request is justified.

"This is just something that strikes at the core of what our system of government, and certainly our system of justice, is about," Strentz said.

Heemstra, 50, killed the unarmed Lyon, 52, with a single rifle shot to the head in January 2003. The violence followed arguments between the two men over Warren County farmland and cattle-watering equipment.

Prosecutors said Heemstra dragged Lyon's body behind a pickup truck more than a mile before dumping the corpse in a cistern.

Heemstra later confessed to authorities. He was freed from the Fort Dodge state prison in October after spending more than four years in prison for voluntary manslaughter.

District Judge Michael Huppert, following a five-day civil trial last fall, ordered Heemstra to pay a $5.68 million wrongful death judgment to Lyon's family. But Lyon's estate has alleged in court documents that Heemstra and his relatives have adopted a "scorched earth" strategy intended to deprive Lyon's widow, Ronda, of the judgment and to destroy her emotional well-being.

Within days of the slaying, land owned by Heemstra was allegedly being transferred to other parties, according to Lyon's estate.