Journal Express, Knoxville, IA

January 9, 2014

UPDATE: Court affirms Miller conviction

Steve Woodhouse
Journal-Express

Knoxville — The Iowa Court of Appeals has affirmed the first-degree murder conviction of Michael Jamey Miller. 

Miller was convicted of hiring Terry Tobias Cobbins, Jr., to kill his wife, Teresa, in the couple's home, south of Knoxville on Jan. 7, 2011. Cobbins and Miller were tried separately on first-degree murder charges. Both were convicted. They were sentenced on the same date in 2012 to a mandatory life in prison term. 

Cobbins' trial took place first. The Journal-Express was the only news outlet present for nearly every minute of this trial, as well as Miller's. Media coverage of the Cobbins trial led to a request by Miller's defense for a change of venue. This request was granted, and Miller was tried in Clarke County, as opposed to Marion County. 

Even with the change of venue, the court encountered 16 potential jurors in the 64-member pool who had been exposed to coverage of the Cobbins case. Attorneys for the the State and defense were provided the opportunity to question these jurors in regard to their knowledge of the case. 

One juror, identified in the Court of Appeals' opinion as Brian Stuva, read a small article in the Osceola Sentinel. He said it indicated that he "didn't pay much attention" to the article, but remembered that there was someone else involved in the crime who had already been convicted.

Miller's appellate counsel argued that there was prejudice due to the number of juror strikes available to the trial counsel and alleged that three disqualified jurors sat on the jury. Miller contended that the juror's knowledge of Cobbins' conviction "could not reasonably be set aside" because of the link to the Miller case. Each side was given ten strikes, but the defense chose not to use all of them. 

Judge Mary Tabor, who wrote the opinion on behalf of the Court of Appeals, wrote, "MIller is persuasive in his argument that the publication of information about an accomplice's conviction may be so inherently prejudicial that exposure would taint a prospective juror. But here we do not have to decide if the court erred in denying the defense challenge for cause to juror Stova because even assuming error, Miller cannot show prejudice." 

The appeal also contested the use of co-conspirator statements in testimony at trial. Witnesses testified at both trials in regard to Cobbins approaching them for assistance in the crime of Teresa Miller's murder. Both included statements Cobbins made to them, while Cobbins himself did not take the stand in Miller's trial. Miller argued that the witnesses' statements were hearsay. 

The reason for the objection changed between the trial and oral arguments offered to the Court of Appeals. Trial counsel considered these statements as "idle chatter" than serious invitations for them to join the conspiracy. 

"Miller attacks the district court's determination that a conspiracy existed and abandons the argument that Cobbins did not make the statements in furtherance of the conspiracy," Tabor wrote. "A party must be consistent in his legal theory for relief." 

The appeal also challenged the accomplice testimony, provided by Bernard Bussey. Bussey was the individual who drove Cobbins to Knoxville to commit the crime. Trial counsel is blamed for not asking for a jury instruction requiring the jurors to find evidence to corroborate the out of court statements attributed to Terry Cobbins, as well as Bussey. The problem with the argument Miller's appellate counsel chose is that Cobbins did not testify. 

"Miller's brief highlights the perceived prejudice from the out-of-court declarations by Cobbins, calling them 'the most damning evidence offered by the State,'" Tabor wrote. "But Miller does not address any prejudice from Bussey's testimony and we find none." 

The question for the Court of Appeals became whether or not the State offered enough evidence to corroborate Bussey's testimony. The State presented "strong" evidence to do this, Tabor continued. 

In closing, Tabor wrote, "In conclusion, we find Miller failed to show he was entitled to a new trial as a result of either the denial of defense counsel's challenge for cause to juror Stova, or the district court's admission of Cobbins' co-conspirator statements, or counsel's failure to seek a corroboration instruction." 

"We are pleased that the Court of Appeals affirmed Michael Miller's conviction earlier this morning," Marion County Attorney Ed Bull told the Journal-Express on Jan. 9. "The evidence of guilt was overwhelming in my opinion, and a  jury of his peers and now the Iowa Court of Appeals agreed.  However, I continue to be mindful that nothing we do will ever bring Theresa Miller back.  I never got to meet her in person, but from what I have learned over the past few years, she was a wonderful mother, grandmother and friend to all that knew her.  She, nor anyone, deserves to be shot in their own home by a cold blooded assassin.  I wish to sincerely thank the Marion County Sheriff's  Office, the Iowa Attorney General's Office and all of my staff for assisting me in obtaining and securing this conviction. It truly was a team approach."