A post conviction relief hearing was held Wednesday morning for former ISU student Yvette Louisell, who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 42-year-old paraplegic Keith Stilwell in 1987.
Louisell's attorney, Paul Rosenberg of Des Moines, called three witnesses who raised new evidence that she had been psychologically damaged and was incompetent to stand trial. According to evidence presented by Rosenberg, Louisell had repressed memories of reoccurring childhood sexual abuse between the ages of five and ten by her father that contributed to her actions, and she had been unable to communicate that to her lawyers in the original trial. Rosenberg said this evidence was relevant because of the sexual nature of the original incident.
Louisell killed Stilwell at the age of 17 after he invited her into his home for a nude photo shoot where she said he attacked her. She was arrested after purchasing over $1,000 of merchandise with Stilwell's stolen credit cards.
Louisell said she has taken responsibility for the crime, although she believes the abuse by her father influenced the incident.
"I think that now I have a better understanding of the situation and why I put myself in that situation in the first place," she said.
Story County Attorney Steve Holmes said her original lawyers, John Sandre and Larry Scalise, had lost the case after being unable to explain the stolen credit cards.
"A diminished responsibility defense wouldn't have flown then, and it doesn't fly today," he said.
Rosenberg said the incest prevented her from being able to form the intent required for her 1st degree murder conviction and prevented her from being able to aid in her defense.
"The very definition of competent to stand trial is you are able to aid your attorneys," he said.
Karla Miller, executive director of the Rape Victim Advocacy Program in Iowa City and a certified sexual assault counselor, testified that victims of childhood incest often wait years and even decades to report abuse because of the elements of control from the abuser and shame over the incidents.
In her testimony, Louisell said she had only been able to discuss the incidents after years of therapy.
"There often isn't anyone for kids to report it to," she said. "Secondly, they think it won't do any good. They fear retaliation."
Miller said although she hasn't examined Louisell specifically, she has worked with hundreds of rape victims, including many incest victims, and the suppression of or "dissociation" from memories is well established. She said incest often causes complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which also leads to well developed "fight or flight" responses that can lead to violent reactions to perceived sexual attacks.
In the original trial, Sandre used a defense based around self defense.
"I don't think self defense was a great defense under these facts, but it was sort of all we were left with at that time," he said in his testimony.
Sandre said he only could have known about the abuse if she had told him.
In her trial, a court appointed psychologist had declared her competent after examining her, although she did not mention the abuse to him either.
Holmes said Louisell's recall of the abuse could be fabricated for her own benefit. He cited her "promiscuous" lifestyle at Iowa State and the exhaustion of all other defenses as reasons.
"Wouldn't it be a motive to make up a story if you were in prison for the rest of your life," Holmes asked Miller during her cross-examination.
Miller said the incest was different from other incidents she was involved in and could have contributed to her lifestyle. She said it is unlikely that Louisell's story is fabricated because of the nature of incest.
Mary Louisell-Norton, Louisell's aunt and Steve Louisell's younger sister by nine years, testified Steve Louisell had molested her as a child. She holds a master's in psychology, earned a year ago, and is now an intern in the field.
"Early hyper-sexuality comes from trauma or abuse," Morton said, explaining her own involvement in pornography as a teenager and Louisell's behavior at Iowa State.
District Court Judge Dale Ruigh said he would have to review the testimony suggesting post-traumatic stress from childhood abuse, as well as prior proceedings, before making a judgment.
"I'm quite certain it will not be until the end of June," he said.
Louisell has applied for post conviction relief once before, in 1991, and is eligible to try every 10 years. In 1991, evidence of incest was not presented.