from the Iowa District Court for Woodbury County, Duane E.
defendant appeals his conviction for murder in the second
C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Theresa R. Wilson,
Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.
J. Miller, Attorney General, and Louis S. Sloven, Assistant
Attorney General, for appellee.
by Vogel, P.J., Tabor, J., and Blane, S.J. [*]
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."
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
Facts and Prior Proceedings
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. 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
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."
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
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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
jury found Wanatee guilty of murder in the second degree. For
that conviction, he received an indeterminate sentence of
fifty years. Wanatee now appeals.
Scope and Standards of Review
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 ...