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Pendleton asks for new trial

Joshua Pendleton

The Fort Dodge man who was convicted of the 2019 murder of St. Paul Lutheran Church pastor Rev. Al Henderson in April is asking for a new trial, arguing that the jury’s guilty as charged verdict contradicted evidence the defense believes showed that the defendant was legally insane at the time of the crime.

A Scott County jury in Davenport convicted Joshua Pendleton, 37, on April 27, of one count of first-degree murder and one count of first-degree robbery after approximately three-and-a-half hours of deliberation. The trial was moved to Scott County by order of the court.

The verdict came after five days of testimony from dozens of witnesses and experts.

Pendleton was arrested on Oct. 2, 2019, shortly after Henderson was found unresponsive on the ground outside the back door to St. Paul Lutheran Church. Henderson was pronounced dead at the scene and — as Iowa State Associate Medical Examiner Dr. Michelle Catellier would testify during trial — had died as a result of strangulation and blunt force trauma to the head.

Pendleton was identified as a suspect from security footage from the church. He was later located and taken into custody at his apartment, located about two blocks east of the church on Fourth Avenue South.

Throughout the case and trial, the defense has used an insanity strategy, asserting that Pendleton — a diagnosed schizophrenic — was hallucinating and delusional when he attacked Henderson because he believed the pastor was hurting a child.

In body camera footage and interview recordings with the defendant after he was taken into custody shortly after the crime, Pendleton repeatedly and openly admits to attacking the “bad man” and indicates his actions were justified because a child was in danger. The defense has asserted over and over again that Pendleton was having a mental health episode and was experiencing delusions at the time, and that his allegations against the pastor were not based in reality.

When opening the trial, defense attorney Michelle Wolf told the jury that she wasn’t asking it to return with a verdict of not guilty, or even a conviction of any of the lesser included crimes in the charge. She told the jury she intended to ask it to find Pendleton not guilty by reason of insanity, and that she planned to provide evidence and testimony from witnesses and experts to prove that defense.

In a motion for a new trial filed by Pendleton’s defense attorneys on June 10, Wolf wrote that “the evidence clearly weighs in favor of a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity,” contradicting a guilty as charged verdict.

She also wrote that the state’s rebuttal expert to the defense’s mental health expert was allowed to testify on his opinion of the defendant’s credibility.

The state’s rebuttal expert, Dr. James Dennert, a licensed psychiatrist, was the last testimony the jury heard before closing arguments and going into deliberation.

“Essentially Dr. Dennert testified that he did not conclude that the defendant was suffering from delusions or hallucinations because he did not believe the defendant’s self reporting of these symptoms,” Wolf wrote.

Bob Rigg, a Drake University law professor and expert in criminal law, told The Messenger in April that the insanity defense doesn’t have much success mostly because jurors don’t like it and because oftentimes, they don’t know that when a defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity, that doesn’t mean the defendant just goes free and is back on the street. Once a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity is reached, the defendant remains in custody and is taken to a mental health institution for evaluation.

“Essentially, for the most part, (they) end up spending almost the rest of their life in a mental health institute,” he said.

Pendleton was scheduled to be sentenced on Friday morning at the Webster County Courthouse, but with this motion for a new trial, the sentencing will be postponed until District Court Judge Gina Badding rules on it..

Badding will hear arguments from the defense and the prosecutors from the Webster County Attorney’s Office on Friday morning.

If his motion is denied, Pendleton faces a mandatory life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole from his first-degree murder conviction. His first-degree robbery conviction carries a sentence of up to 25 years in prison, either consecutively or concurrently with the life sentence.

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