Judge denies Pendleton’s motion for new trial
A District Court judge has denied a new trial for a Fort Dodge man convicted of killing a local beloved pastor.
Joshua James Pendleton, 37, was convicted of the first-degree murder of the Rev. Al Henderson by a Scott County jury in April. Pendleton was also convicted of one count of first-degree robbery. The trial was moved to Scott County by order of the court.
In June Pendleton’s defense attorney filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that the verdict was “contrary to the evidence,” and that the court erred in allowing improper opinion testimony during trial.
District Court Judge Gina Badding heard arguments from both the state and the defense on June 18. She filed her ruling on Tuesday evening, denying Pendleton’s motion for a new trial.
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.
Defense attorney Michelle Wolf argued in the motion for a new trial that “the evidence clearly weighs in favor of a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity,” contradicting the guilty as charged verdict.
Badding disagreed. In her ruling, she wrote that it was Pendleton’s burden to prove his insanity defense and the two expert witnesses — Dr. Daniel Tranel, a clinical psychologist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, for the defense; and Dr. James Dennert, a board-certified psychiatrist, for the state — disagreed on whether the defendant was insane at the time he committed the crime.
Tranel reviewed some previous evaluations and reports on Pendleton, as well as interviewed him in order to conduct his own evaluation. Dennert reviewed those same records, interviewed Pendleton and reviewed all of the videos of the defendant from the day of the murder to conduct his evaluation.
Dennert testified that during video of the defendant’s interview with Fort Dodge police Detective Larry Hedlund, Pendleton “responded appropriately” and asked “pertinent questions” and “seemed to understand the situation.”
“Other conduct by Pendleton after the murder shows he understood that killing Henderson was a wrongful act,” Badding wrote in her ruling. “This includes leaving the rope he used on Henderson at the scene of the crime, walking home, taking a shower and changing his clothes.”
In the motion for a new trial, Wolf also argued that Dennert was allowed to give “improper opinion testimony” on the defendant’s credibility.
“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 in her motion.
Badding reviewed the transcript of Dennert’s testimony to inform her ruling on the matter. She found that during cross-examination, when Dennert testified that he did not believe Pendleton had the experience of hearing a girl screaming, the defense’s objection to improper opinion testimony was sustained and the jury was instructed to disregard the statement.
On redirect examination, the state asked Dennert “What evidence made you question the defendant’s hallucination about the girl screaming?” Wolf once again objected, but no ruling was made and Dennert answered, “The totality of the information that I had led me to see it as a self-serving comment, rather than a true report.”
In her ruling, Badding wrote that because defense counsel did not press for a ruling or ask the court to strike the statement Dennert made about the “self-serving comment,” the defense “cannot now complain of error.”
Further, Badding found that the defense “invited” the error because on cross-examination, defense counsel attempted to impeach Denert by challenging him on a statement in his report that noted that the defendant did not describe any delusions or hallucinations. When Dennert attempted to explain, Wolf cut him off and objected to non-responsiveness. On redirect, the state asked Dennert to continue his explanation.
“The court believes it was proper to allow Dr. Dennert to attempt to respond to the line of questioning started by the defense,” Badding wrote.
Pendleton’s sentencing hearing is now scheduled for 10 a.m. on Aug. 20.
First-degree murder is a Class A felony and carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. First-degree robbery is a Class B felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison.