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State v. Buelow

Court of Appeals of Iowa

December 18, 2019

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
FONTAE C. BUELOW, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Dubuque County, Monica L. Zrinyi Wittig, Judge.

         Defendant 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.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Genevieve Reinkoester, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Heard by Bower, C.J., and May and Greer, JJ.

          MAY, Judge.

         This 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.[1]

         Buelow appeals. We reverse and remand for a new trial.

         I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

         Buelow and Link were in a romantic relationship. They stayed in the basement of a friend's home.

         They 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 physically combative.

         They 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.

         The 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 mental-health disorders.

         As the 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.

         Ultimately, 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.

         The matter proceeded to a jury trial. The jury found Buelow guilty of second-degree murder. Buelow now appeals.

         II. Discussion

         Buelow 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."[2] 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 admissible.").

         "[W]e 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).

         A. Grounds for exclusion

         Several grounds for exclusion were noted by the district court, raised by the State on appeal, or both. We address each in turn.

         1. ...


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