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State v. Wanatee

Court of Appeals of Iowa

October 10, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
ELIAS WALTER WANATEE, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Woodbury County, Duane E. Hoffmeyer, Judge.

         A defendant appeals his conviction for murder in the second degree.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Theresa R. Wilson, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Louis S. Sloven, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Heard by Vogel, P.J., Tabor, J., and Blane, S.J. [*]

          TABOR, JUDGE.

         Elias Wanatee appeals his conviction for second-degree murder in the stabbing death of Vernon Mace. Wanatee claims his trial counsel was ineffective in two ways: (1) by not effectively objecting to hearsay testimony relaying Mace's identification of "Eli" as his attacker, and (2) by not seeking to exclude testimony from "a jailhouse snitch." Relatedly, Wanatee argues the cumulative effect of counsel's errors prejudiced his chances of acquittal. Wanatee also faults the district court for allowing the state medical examiner to describe two of Mace's nine cuts as "defensive wounds" and for admitting into evidence a diagram from a forensic pathology textbook illustrating the concept of "defensive wounds."

         To answer Wanatee's first two claims, we find no shortfall in counsel's performance. Because the victim's statements qualified as dying declarations, counsel did not need to object. And because the informant's testimony was admissible, counsel did not breach a duty in choosing impeachment over exclusion. Finally, Wanatee cannot show he was prejudiced by the references to "defensive wounds."

         I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

         "Tom, call an ambulance. I think Eli stabbed me in the lung." Tom Abbe and Anna Edwards recalled Mace uttering those words as he stood at Abbe's front door bleeding from a gaping head wound.[1] Later in her trial testimony, Edwards captured the severity of Mace's condition: "He looked like someone dropped a bucket of red paint on him. . . . It was like taking a pulse. I mean, it was like every time his heart beat, you could see [blood] squirting out the side."

         As Edwards dialed 911, Kim Stahle pulled up outside Abbe's house in a Kia Optima. Stahle saw Mace standing in the yard, holding his stomach. Mace ducked into the residence for less than a minute, then stumbled toward Stahle's car, pleading: "Please take me to the hospital." Stahle drove as fast as she could to the ambulance bay at Mercy Hospital-arriving just after two in the morning. En route, Stahle asked Mace "Who did this to you?" He responded: "Eli." When Stahle arrived at Mercy, she ran to the bay doors and said, "I think there's a dead guy in my car."

         The emergency room nurse moved Mace from the Kia passenger seat into a wheelchair. The nurse remembered Mace was breathing, but "lethargic, meaning slightly unresponsive." When medical personnel removed Mace's blood-soaked clothes, they saw several lacerations. Doctor Suman Tandra noted stab wounds to Mace's scalp, face, abdomen, chest, and forearm. Mace was moaning but generally unresponsive. Dr. Tandra believed Mace was in hemorrhagic shock, a condition that occurs "when the body loses significant amount of blood, typically over 20 percent, and the heart unfortunately cannot function efficiently and [pump] enough blood to your vital organs."

         Dr. Tandra called a trauma surgeon, but Mace went into cardiac respiratory arrest and the trauma team's efforts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful. Mace died about an hour after arriving at the hospital.

         Called to investigate the fatal stabbing, Sioux City police officers interviewed Abbe, Edwards, and Stahle. Those interviews exposed Wanatee as the prime suspect. Wanatee and Mace had a connection not just by their presence at Abbe's house the previous night, but through Wanatee's marriage to Mace's niece, Nelitta Taylor.

         Officers located and arrested Wanatee at a nearby apartment building around 11 a.m. After the arrest, a detective interviewed Wanatee, who denied confronting Mace earlier that morning. Wanatee said witnesses might be blaming him because he recently split up with Taylor. Wanatee acknowledged stopping by Abbe's house that night but said he left alone and saw "nobody else in the street. Nobody else chased me down, nobody else said anything to me, and I just kept going."

         These statements to the detective differed from the story he told a fellow inmate at the Woodbury County jail. According to Michael Bergin, Wanatee said "he got in an altercation and stabbed somebody" five times. Bergin claimed Wanatee told him the victim "died because he bled out because he didn't seek medical attention."

         An autopsy by Dr. Thomas Carroll chronicled nine stab wounds. The doctor believed two fatal wounds likely pierced the victim's liver and chest cavity. Dr. Carroll also described a "slashing laceration" and a "shallow stab laceration" to Mace's left forearm. Dr. Carroll opined the victim was facing his attacker when he received those stab wounds.

         The State charged Wanatee with murder in the first degree. Wanatee filed a notice of self defense. His first trial ended in a hung jury. The district court granted a change of venue to Pottawattamie County for the second trial, which began in February 2017. Defense counsel's closing argument in the second trial emphasized the animosity between Mace and Wanatee stemming from their tense encounter witnessed by Taylor. She testified to seeing her uncle pull a gun on Wanatee during a contentious car ride about a month before the stabbing. Counsel argued: "Mace pulls out a gun, puts it to the back of Eli's head, and then grabs the back of his neck while he's driving the car with three other people in it. You have to ask yourself: Where did that come from?"

         The jury found Wanatee guilty of murder in the second degree. For that conviction, he received an indeterminate sentence of fifty years. Wanatee now appeals.

         II. Scope and Standards of Review

         Because Wanatee's complaints about counsel's performance spring from the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and article I, section 10 of the Iowa Constitution, we review them de novo. See State v. Canal, 773 N.W.2d 528, 530 (Iowa 2009). We review evidentiary rulings, including decisions about the admissibility of ...


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