A county attorney in Iowa is facing scrutiny after a man who planned to plead guilty to sexually abusing a child walked free because of the prosecutor’s apparent issues with alcohol. Michelle Murphy Rivera, the outgoing Clarke County attorney, was arrested twice this year after being accused of drunken incidents at the county courthouse. Rivera was first accused of being drunk in a courtroom in October and was then arrested on a charge of operating a vehicle under the influence while driving to court in December, authorities say.
A local news station, KCCI-TV, learned that a suspect in a child sexual assault case, Dennis Simmerman, walked free despite plans for him to plead guilty. The news station reports that Simmerman was released because Rivera failed to show up for his plea hearing. The 42-year-old prosecutor wasn’t able to attend the hearing because she was being arrested on public intoxication charges at the time, according to KCCI.
The judge in Simmerman’s case ruled that Rivera and her office missed deadlines and hearings and failed to prosecute him on the sexual assault charges within a year after his arrest, without properly securing extensions. Simmerman sat in jail for 15 months awaiting trial on charges accusing him of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old, KCCI reports. He was released on December 17. Charges in the sexual abuse case cannot be re-filed against Simmerman, the news station reports.
Rivera, who apologized after her October arrest, has not commented about her most recent legal troubles and the dismissal of charges against Simmerman. She did not respond to requests for comment from Heavy.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Michelle Rivera Was ‘Slurring Her Words & Stumbling’ in a Courtroom in an October Incident & Nearly Hit a Car While Driving Drunk to the Courthouse in December, Deputies Say
Michelle Rivera’s first run-in with Clarke County deputies came on October 18, the Des Moines Register reports. In the criminal complaint, a deputy wrote that Rivera was “slurring her words and stumbling on her feet” in the courtroom at the Osceola courthouse, the newspaper reports. Rivera refused to take a breath test and was arrested, according to court records.
Court records show Rivera pleaded guilty on November 29 to public intoxication and paid a fine of $65 along with $360 in court charges and a $22.75 surcharge.
Rivera was then arrested again on Friday, December 15, after an incident outside the courthouse in Osceola, the Des Moines Register reports. According to court records, Rivera was charged with operating while intoxicated and child endangerment.
The Clarke County sheriff’s office received a call about an erratic driver about 8 a.m. and a deputy stopped Rivera near the Clarke County courthouse. The caller had told deputies that the driver nearly hit a car, ran a stop sign and then pulled into the courthouse. The caller gave deputies a license plate number that matched Rivera’s vehicle. According to court documents obtained by the Register, the deputy asked Rivera about the complaint and the county attorney said someone had honked at her near a stop sign. The deputy asked Rivera if she had been drinking and she said she had not had any alcohol since Thursday night, but was concerned there was still some in her system, the Register reports.
The deputy said in the complaint that he could smell alcohol on Rivera’s breath and asked her to take standardized field sobriety tests and a breathalyzer. Rivera declined the breath test, but did take the field sobriety tests, and exhibited signs of intoxication, the deputy said in court documents. Rivera was arrested and taken to the county jail, where she again refused to provide a breath sample, the Register reports.
The child endangerment charge was added after the deputy talked to Rivera and learned she had taken her daughter to daycare before driving to the courthouse. The deputy said in court documents that while the child was not believed to be in the car when the erratic driver complaint was made, the officer surmised Rivera was operating while intoxicated while driving the girl to daycare, according to the Register.
Those charges are still pending. A special prosecutor from Dallas County has been appointed to prosecute the case and a judge from another county has been brought in to hear the case. Rivera was released on her own recognizance with her first court appearance set for December 20.
2. She Was First Elected to the Clarke County County Seat in 2011 & Lost Her Re-Election Bid in October
Rivera was first elected as the Clarke County attorney in 2011 and was running for re-election at the time of her October arrest. Rivera, a Democrat, did not drop out of the race, and instead apologized and asked the community to give her another chance. Rivera took out an advertisement in a local newspaper asking for forgiveness:
I genuinely apologize to my family, friends, law enforcement colleagues and my community for all that transpired October 18. I can assure you that I am taking every step necessary to get help, to fix this problem and to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again. I have worked extremely hard for Clarke County for the last seven years and have truly loved doing so. I sincerely hope to continue this endeavor next term. Thank you to the many of you who have reached out with prayers, kind words and support during this difficult time. I would appreciate your vote November 6.
Rivera lost her re-election bid on November 6 to Republican Adam Ramsey by a total of 2,548 votes to 1,069.
3. Dennis Simmerman, Who Planned to Plead Guilty to Sexual Abuse Charges, Was Released & Cannot be Prosecuted Because Rivera Missed Deadlines & Hearings
Michelle Murphy Rivera’s legal troubles have gained attention nationwide after it was discovered her arrest in October and previous issues caused charges to be dropped against a man who planned to plead guilty to sexually abusing a 13-year-old child. Charges were dropped on December 17 against 23-year-old Dennis Simmerman after a judge ruled that the Clarke County attorney’s office had failed to prosecute him in a timely manner, KCCI-TV reports.
“I was obviously happy and relieved,” said Marshall Orsini, Simmerman’s attorney, told the news station. Orsini told KCCI that Rivera made several mistakes during the months his client was awaiting trial. “If the defendant is not put on trial (and) is not tried within a year, you have the potential to have that case dismissed and that’s what happened here.”
Judge Marti Mertz wrote in the ruling, “The county attorney’s unavailability at the last hearing was the finale following unexplained periods of inactivity and lack of responsiveness.” Mertz’s ruling means Simmerman cannot be charged again in connection to the sexual abuse case.
According to KCCI, Simmerman was planning to plead guilty under an Alford plea, meaning he would maintain his innocence, but admit prosecutors had enough evidence to obtain a conviction. But moments before his hearing, Rivera was arrested on public intoxication charges after showing up drunk to work, the news station reports.
Simmerman had been charged with third-degree sexual abuse and disseminating obscene material to a minor by telephone, court records show. After her arrest, Rivera missed a deadline to provide Simmerman with a right to a speedy trial or file for an extension, which would have been due on October 19, the Des Moines Register reports. The judge said the ruling that Rivera showed a “lack of attention throughout the pendency of this matter.”
According to the Register, there were no pretrial conferences conducted and no exchanges of evidence. According to the Register, the judge wrote that Clarke County has a busy criminal docket, but said that is not “good cause” for a speedy trial violation.
Simmerman was 22 when he was accused of sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy, the Register reports. He also sent him obscene photographs, according to court documents. He pleaded not guilty and his attorney filed for a competency evaluation, claiming he suffered from a mental disorder that prevented him from assisting in his defense, but Simmerman was found competent to stand trial by the court. Simmerman’s attorney told the Register he suggested an Alford plea, which the county attorney rejected. He then sent an email in August making an offer for his client to plead guilty to a class D felony. The email was not answered and a week later the attorney emailed Rivera again and said he understood she was checking with the victim. In September, Rivera agreed to the proposed plea, the Register reports, but then she was arrested before the plea change hearing.
4. Rivera, a Mother of 2, Was a Public Defender in Missouri After College Before Returning Home to Osceola, Iowa, to Practice Law
Michelle Murphy Rivera is an Osceola, Iowa, native, who graduated from Clarke Community High School, according to her Facebook page. She has two young children, her Facebook page shows. Photos of her with her kids are splashed across a Facebook page promoting her re-election bid. On November 5, she wrote on Facebook, “Thank you so much to everyone who has offered support, kind words and deeds, and prayers. The compassion and empathy in this community is truly amazing. I feel blessed to serve as Clarke County as the Clarke County Attorney for the past eight years, and pray for the opportunity to continue. I appreciate your vote tomorrow, Nov 6!”
Rivera, who goes by Micki Rivera, graduated from Simpson College in Indianola and Washington Unversity Law School in St. Louis, Missouri, according to a letter supporting her re-election bid published in a local newspaper. After law school, Rivera served as an appellate public defender for five years in the eastern third of Missouri. She then returned to Osceola to practice law.
“Let me preface this letter by saying that I have been a registered Republican for more than 50 years, but there are times when my heart and my good sense lead me to vote for an opposing party candidate, such as is in the race for the county attorney,” Jan Short wrote in the October 24 letter. “I know Micki to be honest, caring, compassionate and works tirelessly to bring all her good qualities to the office of county attorney. I urge you to look at her qualifications and her experience before you cast your vote.”
Adam Stone, another local attorney, wrote in a letter to the Osceola Sentinel Tribune during her re-election bid, “She’s tough, but just. She’s skilled, but humble. She is incredibly smart and good at her job. She speaks softly, and carries a big stick. I know because I’ve been hit with that stick, in trial.”
5. Other Cases Rivera Prosecuted Could be Reviewed Because of Her Arrests
Michelle Rivera’s arrests and the judge’s ruling have called into question other cases she has prosecuted in Clarke County. “An impaired prosecutor is a defendant’s best friend,” legal expert Mark Pennington told KCCI-TV.
“Law enforcement is going to wonder whether or not she is doing her job, and the public — whose oath is to protect — will wonder if she was doing the job or not,” Pennington told the news station. “Everybody should be upset about it. That’s why you have to hold elected officials, including county attorneys, to a high standard.”
There were 3,800 criminal cases in Clarke County in 2018 alone, KCCI-TV reports.
Iowa Judicial Branch records show Rivera remains in good standing with an active license. There have been no disciplinary complaints filed against her. It is not clear if her license will be reviewed following the criminal cases against her.