Mar. 2008 – Swift ruling urged in Heemstra case

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Des Moines Register. Jeff Eckhoff. March 2, 2008

Swift ruling urged in Heemstra case

A Polk County judge could bring order as early as April to a convoluted, five-year legal battle over the value of a slain Warren County farmer's life.

More than a dozen attorneys representing the widow of Tom Lyon, convicted killer Rodney Heemstra, Heemstra's relatives and a Guthrie Center bank have reignited a civil lawsuit bogged down with appeals, counter appeals and a fight over collection of a now-questionable multimillion-dollar court judgment.

"This case is five years old," Donald Beattie, attorney for Ronda Lyon, urged Judge Michael Huppert at a court hearing Friday. "We need to get with it if we're going to have a trial, and try it this summer."

Heemstra, 48, remains in prison for shooting Lyon in the head in January 2003. Authorities said the slaying culminated a series of disputes over land and cattle-watering equipment. The former Milo farmer has claimed he killed Lyon in self-defense after Lyon lunged at him.

Heemstra, convicted of first-degree murder in 2003, was given a new trial in 2006 when the Iowa Supreme Court threw out a felony-murder rule used to try his case. A new jury convicted Heemstra of voluntary manslaughter last year.

Questions for Judge Huppert now revolve around what effect the new criminal conviction should have on a 2006 verdict in Ronda Lyon's wrongful death lawsuit.

Judge Sherman Phipps awarded Tom Lyon's estate a total of $11.5 million in 2006 - $8.9 million plus interest dating back to 2003. But that verdict, which was based largely on Heemstra's first criminal case, was ruled invalid last October by a three-judge panel of the Iowa Supreme Court.

Heemstra's lawyers contend the latest court decision means the civil case must start from scratch. Plus, lawyers contend that the difference between intentional murder and voluntary manslaughter means Heemstra now should be allowed to argue that Lyon, whom Heemstra has accused of provoking the fatal confrontation, is at least partly to blame for his own death.

"Legally, I think this brings into play comparative fault," said Heemstra attorney Joel Yunek.

Lyon's attorneys, meanwhile, contend the original court award should stay.

"All you have to do is re-enter the judgment" based on the manslaughter conviction, attorney Phil Meyers urged Huppert. "You have full authority ... to do so."

If the case ultimately does go to trial, court papers filed by Heemstra's lawyers say they also anticipate "a factual dispute concerning actual damages in that Ronda Lyon has now admitted contact with a divorce attorney prior to the death of her husband."

Beattie said Ronda Lyon has acknowledged contact with a lawyer as part of prodding her husband to seek help with anger and depression issues. Any implication that the marriage was threatened at the time of the shooting is "a joke," he said.

Mixed in with that battle are various other fights over the Lyon family's effort to collect on the original verdict.

Heemstra's parents, sister and brother-in-law want the court to throw out deeds to an estimated $3 million to $4 million worth of family property seized by Lyon lawyers.

The relatives, who borrowed $1 million from a Guthrie Center bank so Heemstra could be free on bail for his most recent trial, also want seized bail money returned to the bank as soon as possible.

Stan Thompson, attorney for the bank, said Warren County court clerks improperly distributed the $1 million bond, including some payments made after the October 2007 Iowa Supreme Court ruling. Court records show more than $71,000 was paid to various state and county offices and the county's Crime Victim Assistance Program, with the bulk of the rest going to Lyon's estate.

Huppert said Friday that it will take him at least 30 days to decide how the case should proceed.