Kirk R. Levin was convicted of first-degree murder and third-degree kidnapping Thursday afternoon, less than two hours after jurors began deliberations.
Levin, 21, was found guilty in Webster County District Court of killing his mother, Marilyn Schmitt, 45, of Early, and kidnapping Jessica Vega, 21, of Storm Lake.
Sac County Attorney Ben Smith said he was happy with the verdict.
-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Doug Hammerand, assistant Iowa attorney general, demonstrates how the belt used to strangle Marilyn Schmitt was applied to her neck during closing arguments Thursday morning in Webster County District Court. The jury found her son, Kirk Levin, 21, of Early, guilty of first-degree murder in her Jan. 3, 2013, death.
"This wasn't the only thing on our plate," Smith said. "It's hard to think about other things when you're so busy with one case."
He added that although the prosecution was successful, it doesn't change the fact that one victim is dead.
"This isn't bringing Marilyn back," Smith said. "And the defendant is their own blood too, so they're still hurting."
To convict Kirk Levin of first-degree murder and third-degree kidnapping, prosecutors had to prove the following:
First-degree murder - On Jan. 3, 2013, Levin stabbed and/or strangled Marilyn Schmitt, who died as a result of those actions. Levin was acting with malice aforethought, and acted willfully, deliberately, premeditatedly and with a specific intent to kill.
Third-degree kidnapping - On Jan. 3, 2013, Levin confined or removed Jessica Vega from one place to another. Levin did this with the specific intent to either sexually abuse or secretly confine Vega. Levin knew he did not have the consent or authority to do this.
Sac County attorney
When Ben Smith was elected Sac County attorney in 2010, he never imagined that he would be prosecuting two first-degree murder cases before his first term had even expired.
"I didn't even think I would prosecute two OWIs during my first term," Smith said Thursday.
The trial of Kirk Levin was the second Smith was involved in. In November 2011, Tracey Richter was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Dustin Wehde, 18, of Early. Jurors found Richter killed Wehde in December 2001 as part of an elaborate scheme to frame her ex-husband and gain full custody of her children.
In both cases, Smith shared the prosecution with Assistant Iowa Attorney General Doug Hammerand.
"I've learned more in the last week, and two years ago, than I did in three years of law school," Smith said. "He's (Hammerand) had enough confidence in me to allow me to give the opening statement in this case."
Both cases have similarities. Richter's and Levin's crimes both happened in Early. Both were moved back from their original trial date, and both trials were moved to Fort Dodge.
"I never thought I'd be back a year and a half later," Smith said.
Smith commended Hammerand for his work.
"He's the best in the state," he said. "It's amazing to sit with someone like that during a trial."
The Schmitt family declined to comment after the verdict was announced, but they issued a statement saying they were happy with the verdict and requested their privacy.
Levin's attorney, Charles Kenville, did not comment.
Smith admitted he wasn't sure what the jury would decide.
"They can do anything," Smith said. "Even though the evidence was strong, there were times I thought it was possible they would think there was no intent to sexually assault (Vega), and it was quite possible they would believe he acted without thinking."
To convict Levin of third-degree kidnapping, prosecutors had to prove he had intended to either sexually assault or secretly confine Vega, who also did not comment after the verdict.
In closing arguments, Assistant Iowa Attorney General Doug Hammerand reminded jurors of all the evidence the prosecution had presented, including two police interviews with Levin where he admitted killing Schmitt and kidnapping Vega.
He said Schmitt was happy that Levin was moving in with her at 2242 Ira Ave. in Early, and had even gotten him a job interview at the company where she worked.
"Within 48 hours, the way the defendant repaid her for her kindness was by stabbing and cutting her 88 times," Hammerand said. "He broke her neck and strangled her. He took this belt and cinched it around her neck and left her in the bedroom."
Hammerand said the evidence showed that after killing Schmitt Levin took a shower and changed clothes before driving up to Storm Lake to see Vega. After telling Vega his car broke down, Levin asked her to drive him back to Early, according to Hammerand.
"Jessica goes with him to the barn," Hammerand said. "He grabs a yellow nylon rope. This is the rope he ties up Jessica with and says, 'I'm kidnapping you.'"
But, Hammerand added, Vega remained calm and told Levin she wouldn't fight him if he drove back to Storm Lake to pick up her daughter.
Vega previously testified her goal was to "get back to society." Hammerand said Vega was able to get away after Levin's car went off the road and Early farmer Gary Schramm stopped to help.
Addressing the murder charge, Hammerand said Levin clearly committed first-degree murder when he killed Schmitt.
"This wasn't a woman who slipped and fell down the steps and broke her neck," Hammerand said. "She didn't fall on a knife and cut herself by accident. She didn't strangle herself by accident. It was an intentional act."
He also said Levin's own words prove Vega's kidnapping was sexually motivated.
"Was the defendant intending to commit sexual abuse? Clearly, he was," Hammerand said. "When they asked him if he wanted to commit a sex act, he responded with 'I can't think of any other reason why' he would have kidnapped her."
Kenville, in closing, said he was not denying Levin killed Schmitt. However, he argued that his client's actions were not premeditated.
"Just because he killed her does not mean it's murder in the first degree," Kenville said. "What we're contesting is the premeditation and deliberation. You have to start from the standpoint that the defendant did not have those characteristics."
Kenville argued that Levin was not in the right state of mind when he killed Schmitt.
"Any time there's an act, there's going to be time before that," he said. "Just because there's a span of time doesn't mean his mental state is intact. There still has to be premeditation and motivation. Do we have evidence of that? I don't think we really do."
He added much of the state's case was based on speculation. Specifically, he talked about the knife used as the apparent murder weapon.
"We don't know where that knife was before it happened," Kenville said. "That knife could have been upstairs already. You saw in the crime scene video that Ms. Schmitt was doing remodeling and working on carpet. That knife could easily have been right there before this happened. Do we know that? No."
Kenville also said investigators came up with the idea that a sexual fantasy led Levin to kidnap Vega.
"If you listen to the way police progress down the issue, you see that they bring it up and try to say it different ways," he said. "The idea of the defendant's fantasy to rape Ms. Vega I think is the police's."
Hammerand disagreed, and said Levin was pretending to not remember details about the crimes.
"He starts out by saying, 'I just woke up. There was snow. Jessica was yelling. I don't remember, I don't remember,'" Hammerand said. "They keep interviewing him, and all of a sudden the cloud lifts. He's saying he was there. He remembers the details."
Levin's sentencing is set for July 12 in Sac City. He faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison on the murder conviction and 10 years in prison on the kidnapping conviction. Smith said he will ask the judge for the sentences to run consecutively.
"These were two different crimes and two different victims," he said.