The first-degree murder conviction of a Blairstown man, who shot and killed his wife’s girlfriend in 2009, has been upheld by the Iowa Court of Appeals.
Tonch Weldon, 40, who was convicted in July 2011 of shooting and killing Amy Gephart on June 7, 2009, had argued that Iowa County District Court erred by improperly allowing lay opinion testimony and by not allowing a forensic toxicologist from testifying that he was too intoxicated to form the specific intent required for first-degree murder.
A seven-man, five-woman jury deliberated for 24 hours over four days before reaching its verdict, the longest known deliberation by an Iowa County jury.
Weldon and his wife, Amanda, approached Gephart in February 2009 and began a three-way relationship. She later moved into the couple’s home, which they shared with their two children. In the next few months, Amanda Weldon and Gephart fell in love and began excluding Tonch Weldon from the relationship.
On the day of the killing, Weldon learned that the two women were leaving him and planning to move into Gephart’s camper. Testimony during the week-long trial in Iowa County District Court indicated that Weldon went inside the house, began arguing with Gephart and shot her in the chest with a 20-gauge shotgun. Weldon shot himself through the jaw and attempted to shoot himself twice more before Amanda successfully wrestled the gun away from him and called for help.
Tonch Weldon had filed a notice of the defense of intoxication in March 2011.
The state filed a motion to exclude expert testimony requesting that Michael Rehberg, a forensic toxicologist testifying for the defense, should be barred from providing an opinion on Weldon’s ability to form specific intent at the time of offense. The court agreed with the state on the grounds that Weldon’s capability of forming the specific intent was outside Rehberg’s expertise.
At trial, the state did not object to Rehberg’s qualifications to testify on Weldon’s blood alcohol level and its general effects on a human being, but objections were raised to allowing Rehberg to testify that Weldon would have been completely unable to plan, deliberate or premeditate in his intoxicated state, or form specific intent. The defense, making an offer of proof regarding Rehberg’s qualifications to specific intent on the record outside the presence of the jury, said that Rehberg’s long experience dealing with intoxication and its effect on humans, including large-group studies on intoxication, qualified Rehberg to offer an opinion. But the state continued to point out that Rehberg was not a doctor nor had psychological qualifications to offer a qualified opinion.
The appeals court agreed, noting that while Rehberg was “an extremely qualified expert” in forensic toxicology, he did not have a particular expertise in determining an individual’s state of mind.
During the trial, Brooke DeRuyter was among several witnesses testifying to Weldon’s non-violent and loving nature, and how he valued his marriage. On cross-examination, the state asked DeRuyter, “If (Weldon) had to choose between Amanda (his wife) and (Gephart), who would he choose?” The court overruled the defense’s objection that the question called for improper opinion testimony, and DeRuyter answered, “I believe he would choose his wife and his children.”
The appeals court sided with the state, noting that several witnesses – including Amanda Weldon, Ken Vrchoticky and Anna Evans – also testified as to how Amanda and their children were the most important things in Weldon’s life; their testimony took place before DeRuyter took the stand.
“In the context of these statements already admitted into the record, there is no clear abuse of discretion in alloying DeRuyter to answer the question,” the appeals court stated, noting there was adequate foundation laid to show she had personal knowledge as to what Weldon thought was important. Also, the defense had opened the door to the question by asking about Weldon’s relationships.