CEDAR RAPIDS – A man convicted in the murder and rape of a 17-year-old Cedar Rapids woman in Jones County found out last month, 38 years after the fact, that he won’t be tried in Linn County for another murder stemming from the same crime in 1974.
Atwell Conner, 67, who is serving life sentence for the murder of Maureen Connolly, asked the court to dismiss the Linn County first-degree murder charge in the death of Michael Servey, 18, also of Cedar Rapids, who was with Connolly March 9, 1974, based on speedy trial and double jeopardy grounds. Conner filed a previous motion to dismiss the charge in 2004 but a hearing was never set or a judge never ruled on the motion.
Conner, along with George Nowlin, who died in prison in 1989, was convicted in 1974 of shooting and killing Connolly. Conner and Nowlin picked up Connolly and Servey that night when they ran out of gas and were walking along Sixth Street SW in Cedar Rapids. Nowlin was found guilty of raping Connolly and killing her in Jones County and killing Servey, near Palisades State Park in Linn County.
According to trial testimony, Nowlin shot both Connolly and Servey but Connor was found guilty for his part in the underlying crime of robbery. Servey was robbed of $42.
Assistant Linn County Attorney Nic Scott asked the court to dismiss the case for “judicial and executive” efficiency, according to the motion.
“Certainly, another consideration is the extremely difficult evidentiary issues in trying Conner’s 38-year-old case,” Scott said. “But most importantly, Atwell Conner is serving a life sentence without parole at the Anamosa State Penitentiary where he will remain until his death.”
Sixth Judicial District Nancy Baumgartner in her order Dec. 27, said she was dismissing the charge with prejudice after reviewing the state’s motion and ordered the state to pay the court costs.
Scott and others said Thursday they can’t give a definitive answer as to why this wasn’t addressed in 2004 or before but based on court records the case was continued until it made its way through the appeals process.
Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden speculated that Conner’s defense attorney at the time may not have followed up the motion requesting a hearing.
Former Linn County Attorney Harold Denton, who was the county attorney in 2004, said he also didn’t know what happened but it’s not unusual for the charge to remain open years later based on the lengthy appeals process and post-conviction relief possibilities. It wouldn’t be reasonable or cost effective for Linn County to prosecute Conner since he was already convicted and serving a mandatory life sentence.
After Conner’s appeals were denied, former Gov. Tom Vilsack denied Connor’s commutation request in 2004, which followed a 5-0 recommendation by the Iowa Board of Parole to reject Conner’s application.
Vilsack in denying Conner’s application said he failed to disassociate himself from Nowlin or to stop the robbery, failed to protect either victim and failed to alleviate the suffering of the victims’ families by notifying authorities after the murders occurred. The teens’ bodies were found about a week later.
Former Linn County Attorney William Faches, who died in 1999, wrote a letter to former Gov. Tom Vilsack in 1999, saying Conner was wrongly convicted and he wouldn’t prosecute Conner for Servey’s murder, according to court records.
Vander Sanden said he had no knowledge about Faches’ comments regarding Conner.
Conner at the commutation hearing in 2004 maintained his innocence, claiming he was forced to participate in the crime at gunpoint by Nowlin and feared for his life. He also said Nowlin threatened to kill his family if he didn’t participate in the robbery.
Parole board members at the hearing said there were inconsistencies in Conner’s testimony and it was difficult to accept his account of not being able to intercede and help the victims.
Patrick Servey, Michael’s brother, asked the board at the hearing not to commute Conner’s life sentence. He told them not to forget how Connolly was raped and killed and how his brother was killed after being robbed.