Appeals court rules against Sessions Harper

Former FD man, who is serving life in prison for the murder of Holly Michael in 2006, sought post-conviction relief

A man convicted of sexually assaulting a Fort Dodge woman and setting her on fire, causing her death, has lost another bid for a court appeal.

Sessions Harper, 47, formerly of Fort Dodge, is serving a life sentence at the Iowa State Penitentiary for the murder and sexual assault of Holly Michael, 22, in early 2006.

Harper was convicted of first-degree murder, first-degree sexual abuse and first-degree kidnapping, as well as first-degree arson, in connection with Michael’s death.

Harper had been seeking post-conviction relief, which is a legal option for defendants who have exhausted all of their appeals.

However, in 2017, Harper’s application for post-conviction relief was denied. He appealed that denial to the Iowa Court of Appeals.

In its ruling, issued Wednesday, the Iowa Court of Appeals agreed with the district court’s ruling and denied Harper’s application again.

In arguing for post-conviction relief, Harper claimed that his defense counsel was ineffective in representing him, and brought up a number of reasons he believed this to be true.

First, he argued that his counsel “was ineffective in failing to challenge the district court’s ‘overbroad definition’ of serious injury.”

However, the appeals court ruled that the evidence Harper provided — an instruction the district court gave that defined “serious injury” — was a correct statement and that Harper’s attorneys had no duty to challenge it.

Harper also argued that his counsel was not effective in challenging “the sufficiency of the evidence concerning the serious-injury element of the crime.” But the court ruled that the “argument is premised on Harper’s erroneous challenge to the jury instruction discussed above.”

The defendant also argued that his counsel should have objected to the fact that the court did not identify the offense of second-degree kidnapping and only identified first-degree kidnapping.

“Kidnapping in the second degree requires proof that either ‘the purpose is to hold the victim for ransom’ or ‘the kidnapper is armed with a dangerous weapon,'” the Court of Appeals ruled, then stated that neither of those elements are needed to convict someone of first-degree kidnapping.

“As such, it is not impossible to commit first-degree kidnapping without also committing second-degree kidnapping,” the court ruled. “Accordingly, the court was not required to instruct the jury on the elements of kidnapping in the second degree and, in turn, trial and appellate counsel were under no duty to raise the issue.”

Finally, Harper believed that his attorneys were wrong to not challenge the sufficiency of evidence that concerned “the confinement or removal element of first-degree kidnapping.”

The court ruled that Harper provided no evidence of this in his appeal.

“In support of this contention, Harper provides his slanted version of the evidence and a wealth of conclusory statements in support of his position,” the court wrote in its ruling. “He provides us with no on-point legal authority to support his position” besides a passing citation to a previously-decided court case.

There were a number of other claims Harper made of his ineffective counsel, but the court ruled against all of those as well.

“As to Harper’s remaining challenges relating to counsel’s competency as to various other jury instructions, we find such arguments generally incoherent, lacking in specificity, unconvincing, and insufficient to identify error on appeal,” the court ruled.

On Jan. 8, 2006, Michael was found by a Fort Dodge firefighter in her burning home.

She was conscious and bound.

While being treated at UnityPoint Health — Trinity Regional Medical Center, Michael told doctors that Harper had sexually assaulted her and then set her on fire.

Michael lived for nearly three weeks before dying from her injuries on Jan. 26, 2006, at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City.

Harper was convicted of all four charges following a February 2007 trial that was held in Buena Vista County due to a change of venue motion filed by his attorneys.