from the Iowa District Court for Linn County, Mitchell E.
defendant appeals his conviction of first-degree murder,
claiming the jury should have been instructed to consider his
defense of insanity.
L. Wassmer of Wassmer Law Office, PLC, Marion, for appellant.
J. Miller, Attorney General, and Aaron J. Rogers, Assistant
Attorney General, for appellee.
by Danilson, C.J., and Potterfield and Bower, JJ.
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. 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.
Background Facts and Proceedings.
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.
April 21, 2015, Luerkens sharpened an eight-inch kitchen
knife before tracking down Lynnsey at the nearby Hy-Vee store
in Marion, Iowa. 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.
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.
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.
filed a notice of defense of insanity pursuant to Iowa Rule
of Criminal Procedure 2.11(11)(b). 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. 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
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
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."
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.
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.
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 ...