Justices reject sex offender’s argument that his anatomy isn’t an ‘object’

The Iowa Supreme Court has upheld a new state law limiting the ability of criminal defendants to appeal their convictions. However, one of the justices warns that the majority's reasoning could mean the Iowa Legislature can now "invade the supervisory powers of this court" and use its "power to destroy the role of the courts in enforcing constitutional norms." (Photo courtesy of Iowa Judicial Branch)

The Iowa Supreme Court has rejected a Polk County man’s argument that he didn’t sexually assault a woman because parts of his anatomy can’t be considered “objects” under Iowa law.

In 2019, a Polk County jury convicted Zachary Zacarias of “assault using any object to penetrate the genitalia” of another person. On appeal, Zacarias argued there was insufficient evidence to support that conviction because his finger, which he allegedly used in the assault, does not constitute an “object” under state law.

Zacarias had allegedly admitted to police that on evening of May 28, 2017, he was hosting a party attended by C.G., a 17-year-old woman who later told authorities she had taken a Trazodone sleeping pill before arriving at the house on the assumption she’d soon be getting a ride home and would go to bed.

C.G. told police she fell asleep after Zacarias gave her a drink and when she woke up she was naked from the waist down with Zacarias holding her legs apart. C.G. told police she hit Zacarias, knocking him off the couch, and began screaming for help. A dresser had allegedly been moved in front of the bedroom door, preventing others from entering the room.

Police were summoned to the house and Zacarias, who was 21 at the time, allegedly told an officer that C.G. had blacked out, and that he had removed her clothing and penetrated her with his finger. When an officer asked Zacarias how C.G. “could have consented if she was ‘blacked out,’ ” Zacarias alleged said C.G. had relaxed her legs and “never said no.”

Police and prosecutors initially charged Zacarias with sexual abuse in the third degree, a Class C felony, but that charge was dismissed due to delays in bringing the case to trial within one year of arraignment. Prosecutors then charged Zacarias with another Class C felony, assault with an object by penetration of the genitalia.

At trial, Zacarias’ attorney proposed jury instructions that would have limited the definition of an object to “a material thing other than any portion of the defendant’s body or organs.” A judge rejected that proposal, and a jury subsequently found Zacarias guilty. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and he later appealed his conviction.

In reviewing the case, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the conviction and noted that the dictionary defines an object as “a discrete, visible or tangible” thing.

“Under Zacarias’ interpretation of ‘object,’ all a defendant in Zacarias’ situation would have to argue to plant a seed of reasonable doubt is that he penetrated the victim with his finger instead of an inanimate object in those situations when victims cannot definitively say what the defendant used,” the court ruled. “It would not be logical to allow Zacarias to be convicted of assault by penetration for penetrating the victim with an inanimate object but to prohibit his conviction under the same statute because he used his finger instead.”

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.