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Pendleton convicted of killing pastor

Sentencing scheduled for June 18

-Daily Freeman-Journal photo by Kelby Wingert Kristine Henderson, wife of the late Rev. Al Henderson, embraces Mel Pendleton, father of murder defendant Josh Pendleton, moments after the jury's guilty verdict was read on Tuesday morning.

DAVENPORT — It was a lesson in grace.

Just moments after a Scott County jury convicted Joshua Pendleton of first-degree murder in the October 2019, killing of the Rev. Al Henderson, the pastor’s widow approached the defendant’s father, who had also been watching the trial from the public viewing room. Kristine Henderson and Mel Pendleton embraced each other and they wept together.

Oct. 2, 2019, was undoubtedly the worst day in both families’ lives, and April 27, 2021, was likely the second worst. And yet, two years after Al Henderson’s tragic killing, they mourned together.

After five days of testimony from dozens of witnesses, the jury spent a total of three-and-a-half hours split between Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning deliberating the evidence against Joshua Pendleton. The jurors returned shortly before 11:30 a.m. Tuesday with the verdict of guilty on all counts — first-degree murder, a Class A felony, and first-degree robbery, a Class B felony.

“This has been an incredibly difficult case for everybody involved,” First Assistant Webster County Attorney Ryan Baldridge said after the verdict. “Local law enforcement, local first responders and Pastor Henderson’s family. We’re glad we were able to get the resolution that we did and we’re hopeful that this will bring some closure to the family and to the community.”

-Daily Freeman-Journal photo by Kelby Wingert The family of the late Rev. Al Henderson react to hearing the jury's verdict on Tuesday morning, convicting defendant Josh Pendleton of murdering the pastor in October 2019. Pictured are Kristen Willingham, Henderson's youngest daughter; Kristine Henderson, Henderson's wife; and Kelly Henderson, his son.

When he died, Al Henderson, 64, was a pillar of the Fort Dodge community. He led the congregation at St. Paul Lutheran Church; he served as chaplain for the Fort Dodge Police Department, Fort Dodge Fire Department, Webster County Sheriff’s Office and local Iowa State Patrol Post 7; and he founded Serving Our Servants, an organization whose mission is supporting public servants like law enforcement and emergency personnel.

Baldridge said he wanted to thank local law enforcement for their support in seeing this case through to the verdict.

“This was an incredibly difficult case for them to work and they did an excellent job at it,” he said.

Defense attorney Michelle Wolf declined to comment.

With the first-degree murder conviction, Joshua Pendleton, of Fort Dodge, is facing a mandatory sentence of life in prison. The robbery conviction could add up to 25 years to his sentence, depending on if the judge orders the two sentences to be served concurrently or consecutively.

Joshua Pendleton’s sentencing is scheduled for June 18 at the Webster County Courthouse.

He was arrested on Oct. 2, 2019, shortly after Al Henderson was found unresponsive on the ground outside the back door to St. Paul Lutheran Church. Henderson was pronounced dead at the scene and — as Iowa State Associate Medical Examiner Michelle Catellier would testify during trial — had died as a result of strangulation and blunt force trauma to the head.

Pendleton was identified from security footage from the church. While security cameras did not capture the assault, they did show that the defendant was on the property around the time of the attack. He was later located and taken into custody at his apartment, located about two blocks east of the church on Fourth Avenue South.

Pendleton was taken to the Webster County Law Enforcement Center and eventually charged with first-degree robbery and first-degree murder and booked into the Webster County Jail.

In early 2020, after displaying erratic behavior, Pendleton was ordered to be evaluated for competency and soon after declared incompetent to stand trial and ordered to begin competency restoration treatment.

In June 2020, the court found his competency had been restored and proceedings continued. In July 2020, the trial was moved to the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport after defense attorneys raised concern about pretrial media coverage and finding an impartial jury pool.

Throughout this case, the defense has leaned on an insanity defense, arguing that Joshua Pendleton was suffering from a mental health episode when he attacked Al Henderson and did not know what he was doing was wrong. Contrary to how it may appear in popular culture, the insanity defense is an incredibly rare defense strategy — accounting for less than 1% of pleas by defendants in criminal trials, according to the Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project. Of that miniscule number of insanity pleas, only a fraction are successful in receiving a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict.

Bob Rigg, a Drake University law professor and expert in criminal law, said the insanity defense’s lack of success is mostly because juries don’t like it.

“People just don’t like the idea that somebody is going to be so insane or so not criminally liable for a homicide or for some other really egregious act, that they just don’t like it, it’s counter intuitive,” he said.

Rigg said jurors also often don’t really know how to apply the legal standard — called the M’Naghten Test, which was developed from an English case in the 1840s, long before the science of modern psychiatry had identified psychotic mental illnesses like schizophrenia. The M’Naghten Test deems a defendant insane if mental illness prevents the offender from knowing the difference between right and wrong, but does not go into the complex nuances of mental illnesses and disorders.

“It’s an antiquated standard,” Rigg said.

Out of the few criminal cases that raise an insanity defense, the most successful ones are not tried by a jury, Rigg said. A defendant is more likely to be found not guilty by reason of insanity in a bench trial, when a judge renders the verdict rather than a jury.

Just last month, in Bremer County, a judge found a man not guilty by reason of insanity in the shooting death of his adult son in March 2019.

Rigg said another reason juries don’t like the insanity defense is because oftentimes, they don’t know that when a defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity, that doesn’t mean the defendant just goes free and is back on the street. Once a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity is reached, the defendant remains in custody and is taken to a mental health institute for evaluation.

“Essentially, for the most part, (they) end up spending almost the rest of their life in a mental health institute,” he said.

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