from the Iowa District Court for Dubuque County, Monica L.
Zrinyi Wittig, Judge.
Fontae Buelow appeals his conviction of second-decree murder.
Elisabeth A. Archer and David N. Fautsch of The Weinhardt Law
Firm, Des Moines, for appellant.
J. Miller, Attorney General, and Genevieve Reinkoester,
Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.
by Bower, C.J., and May and Greer, JJ.
case centers on two people, Fontae Buelow and Samantha Link.
One of them-either Buelow or Link-ended Link's life.
Buelow maintains Link committed suicide. But a jury found
Buelow guilty of Link's murder.
appeals. We reverse and remand for a new trial.
Facts and Prior Proceedings
and Link were in a romantic relationship. They stayed in the
basement of a friend's home.
were together on the evening of March 30, 2017. They began
the evening at a local hotel to use the hot tub. Eventually,
they met up with friends for drinks. But over the course of
the evening, their relationship began to deteriorate. They
argued and eventually went home. Their argument continued.
Buelow wanted Link to leave the home. The two became
ended up in the kitchen. There were knives in the kitchen.
Link suffered stab wounds to the chest. One wound went
through her heart and another went completely through her
lung. Buelow called 911 and requested assistance. He claimed
Link stabbed herself. Emergency responders rendered aid to
Link, but she was pronounced dead at the scene.
State charged Buelow with first-degree murder. Early in the
case, Buelow filed a motion for access to Link's medical
records and mental-health records. Buelow argued the records
may contain exculpatory evidence that would support his claim
about the cause of Link's death. The court reviewed the
records in camera and then made them available to the
parties. Link's records showed prior suicide attempts,
statements of suicidal intent, and diagnoses of serious
case proceeded, there was extensive litigation concerning the
records. The issues included: what records could be
disseminated to Buelow's experts; what opinions experts
could offer at trial; and whether the records themselves, or
their contents, could be admitted at trial. Buelow sought to
admit Link's records from the past five years, during
which Link had struggled with severe mental illness and
attempted suicide at least twice. Buelow also wanted his
psychiatric expert, Dr. David Bean, to review those records
and present opinions about whether Link's mental-health
history may have contributed to her death.
the court only permitted Dr. Bean to review Link's
records from the year immediately preceding her death. But
the court excluded the medical records themselves and most of
their contents, including Link's prior suicide attempts.
The court also substantially limited Dr. Bean's
testimony. He was prohibited from offering opinions as to
whether Link may have experienced increased "depressive
symptomology," including potentially "suicidal
activity," on the night of her death.
matter proceeded to a jury trial. The jury found Buelow
guilty of second-degree murder. Buelow now appeals.
claims that, because this was "a murder trial where the
defense [was] that the decedent committed suicide," the
district court erred by excluding medical records and expert
testimony "tending to demonstrate the decedent's
suicidal disposition." See, e.g., 41 C.J.S.
Homicide § 332 (2019) ("Where the theory
of the defense is that the deceased committed suicide, any
evidence otherwise competent tending to show that the
deceased came to his or her death by his or her own act is
generally review evidentiary rulings for an abuse of
discretion." State v. Helmers, 753 N.W.2d 565,
567 (Iowa 2008) (citation omitted). An abuse of discretion
occurs when the district court excludes evidence based on an
erroneous application of the law. Giza v. BNSF Ry.
Co., 843 N.W.2d 713, 718 (Iowa 2014).
Grounds for exclusion
grounds for exclusion were noted by the district court,
raised by the State on appeal, or both. We address each in