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State v. Luerkens

Court of Appeals of Iowa

May 3, 2017

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
NICHOLAS JOHN LUERKENS, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Linn County, Mitchell E. Turner, Judge.

         The defendant appeals his conviction of first-degree murder, claiming the jury should have been instructed to consider his defense of insanity.

          Webb L. Wassmer of Wassmer Law Office, PLC, Marion, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Aaron J. Rogers, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Heard by Danilson, C.J., and Potterfield and Bower, JJ.

          POTTERFIELD, Judge.

         Nicholas Luerkens appeals his conviction following a jury trial on the charge of first-degree murder, in violation of Iowa Code section 707.2 (2015), in the stabbing death of Lynnsey Donald. Luerkens contends the district court erred in refusing to submit his insanity defense to the jury.[1] Because he did present sufficient evidence of his mental status and there was substantial evidence in the record to submit Luerkens's affirmative defense of insanity to the jury, we reverse and remand for a new trial.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         The facts as presented at trial demonstrate that Luerkens and Lynnsey were involved in a romantic relationship beginning in January 2014. Lynnsey and her son, A.D., moved in with Luerkens, but in December 2015, she moved out to live with a friend due to Luerkens's drinking issues. In February 2015, Luerkens went to a doctor for symptoms associated with depression. He obtained a prescription for Paxil. However, his alcohol consumption and mood worsened. He missed family events, and his relationships deteriorated. He continued to drink excessively. Luerkens eventually moved out of his mother and father's house. Luerkens also engaged in unwanted contact with Lynnsey. On several occasions, another party had to instruct him to leave her residence. A witness testified that on one occasion around March 2015, Luerkens had been drinking when he showed up to Lynnsey's residence uninvited. Lynnsey eventually blocked Luerkens's attempts to contact her through phone and text messages. Luerkens used other numbers to circumvent Lynney's attempts to block his communications.

         On April 21, 2015, Luerkens sharpened an eight-inch kitchen knife before tracking down Lynnsey at the nearby Hy-Vee store in Marion, Iowa.[2] Luerkens parked his car next to Lynnsey's car while she was in the store with A.D. Shortly after, Luerkens moved his car behind an SUV while Lynnsey and A.D. exited the store. Luerkens then ran in between the parked vehicles and attacked Lynnsey with the knife. Witnesses testified Luerkens screamed, "I'm going to kill my wife, " "You fucking bitch, " and "She's dead now, " during and after the stabbing. Witnesses also testified that Luerkens was making "really horrific animalistic sounds." The entire incident was captured by a nearby video camera.

         A forensic patholgist testified Luerkens cut Lynnsey thirty-two times during the incident. Six incised wounds were present on Lynnsey's neck; the worst neck wounds cut through the main muscles of the front of the neck, the thyroid gland, and the trachea. Another grouping of stab wounds around the chest and abdomen penetrated into her left lung between three and four inches deep and injured multiple major organs. Lynnsey also suffered defensive wounds on her right and left hands. Lynnsey succumbed to her stab wounds at the scene within minutes of the attack.

         Before the police arrived, Luerkens attempted to stab himself in the chest and abdomen. Witnesses testified that the knife was bent from stabbing Lynnsey, and Luerkens attempted to straighten the blade on the concrete before he attempted to stab himself. He also shouted, "I want to die, " "I need to kill myself, " and "I don't want to go to jail" at the scene. When the police asked him about going to the hospital to treat his wounds, he responded, "I don't need an ambulance, man. You're going to take me to jail anyways, " and "My fucking life is over now." He also attempted to reopen his wounds by reaching and grabbing at them. At the hospital, Luerkens underwent surgery to repair his stab wounds. On May 8, 2015, Luerkens was charged by trial information with first-degree murder.

         Luerkens filed a notice of defense of insanity pursuant to Iowa Rule of Criminal Procedure 2.11(11)(b).[3] At trial, much of the focus was on Luerkens's mental state before, during, and after the stabbing. Lay witnesses testified regarding Luerkens's mental condition prior to the stabbing. Debra Luerkens, the defendant's mother, opined that her son's mental condition declined soon after he started taking Paxil.[4] She stated, "I do believe that there's a reason he wouldn't know it's right or wrong, and its Paxil." She cited instances of Luerkens being sick, throwing up, and waking up with nightmares to support her opinion. Cameron Luerkens, the defendant's father, also testified regarding the defendant's condition. He stated, "I'm saying absolutely that it came to a point in time where I think he became amoral. He lost his way. He didn't know right from wrong. And [it] came to the point of when the event happened he absolutely did not know right from wrong. He did not think about any consequences."

         Other witnesses testified Luerkens was distant, deteriorating, and acting abnormal prior to the stabbing. For example, his brother testified Luerkens's demeanor alarmed him in the days leading up to the stabbing and "maybe he had some deeper chemical depression imbalances in his brain that were going on that were causing some of that type of behavior." A mental health worker, who was also a family friend, testified he recommended Luerkens should be committed based on his alarming behavior. Specifically, "The statements that were being said to me were very concerning of what Nick was doing or not doing. Nick was spiraling downward. So I felt that-in my experience that Nick needed help, and the only way . . . for Nick to get help is committal."

         Luerkens's mother also testified that approximately three days after the stabbing Luerkens told her, "something bad happened." Luerkens's father testified that sometime after the stabbing at the hospital "[Luerkens] told me he did something wrong that he probably should not have done." Medical professionals who encountered Luerkens after the stabbing also testified about his condition. A jail nurse explained Luerkens was on suicide watch while at the Linn County Jail "[b]ecause of the nature of [his] crime, the impulsivity of his actions, and also because he had harmed himself."

         After reviewing the records and examining Luerkens, the defense expert testified that, at the time of the crime, Luerkens was suffering from major depressive disorder, or clinical depression, a diagnosis that is present in approximately seven percent of the population. The expert testified major depressive disorder "can affect [a person] in that they're not thinking as they did before. All their thoughts are going to be very, very negative about the present time and future." The expert stated Luerkens "doesn't have a significant recollection of the crime itself" and the nature of the crime suggested Luerkens "was not in control." Luerkens also suffered from severe alcohol use disorder, which is supported by toxicology reports that show cocaine, amphetamine, methamphetamine, alcohol, THC, and methorphan in Luerkens system at the time of the stabbing.

         The State called various witnesses to testify regarding Luerkens actions and mental state. The responding officer who stayed with Luerkens at the scene and hospital testified Luerkens repeatedly stated he wanted to die and he did not want to go to jail forever. Video evidence of the scene also supports the officer's testimony. The officer also stated Luerkens appeared to be lucid and coherent during the times the officer spoke with him at the scene and at the hospital.

         The record reveals that during the investigation, police found a knife sharpener on Luerkens's living room table. Luerkens's journal was also discovered, in which he wrote: "Fuck Life! Lynnsey Will Die, " "To Do: Plot to track down and kill Lynnsey ...

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