Iowa high court orders new criminal trial, orders victim suicide records
December 11, 2020—the Iowa Supreme Court decided State of Iowa v. Fontae Cole Buelow today, holding that an alleged murder victim’s mental health records and suicidality were admissible to prove she killed herself—and, thus, that the murder trial defendant did not commit the crime.
Writing for the Court, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Larson Christensen recounted the alleged facts of the case: the defendant, Fontae, and the alleged murder victim, Samantha, lived together. They began an evening together at a hotel, went to a bar, argued, and the night ended with the defendant’s 911 call alleging that Samantha had stabbed herself once in the stomach. She, sadly, passed away.
The State of Iowa charged Fontae with murdering Samantha after authorities allegedly found her with three stab wounds to the chest piercing her heart and lungs—two of the three wounds were independently fatal.
Fontae asked the court to order the disclosure of Samantha’s mental health records before the criminal trial, arguing that the records would bolster his claim that she killed herself by self-inflicted stab wounds. Fontae wanted the jury to see the records and hear about how she wanted to kill herself.
The trial court disclosed the records to Fontae and the prosecutor—but limited the defense expert’s review to records reaching back one year before Samantha’s death. The records “contained a discussion of [Samantha’s] prior suicide attempts, diagnoses that may increase the risk of suicide, and statements of suicidal ideations.”
At the criminal trial, the judge did not allow the defense psychiatric expert to comment on whether Samantha was suicidal on the night of her death—acting “in conformance with her past conduct.”
In addition, the judge ordered that the jury never see the mental health records and ordered all non-expert witnesses not to talk about Samantha’s suicidal tendencies.
The defendant fought this ruling and asked the court to allow its expert to review mental health records five years back instead of just one and also to let the jury see the mental health records.
Fontae also sought to describe at least one previous, undated incident where Samantha had grabbed a knife in the apartment before her death. The judge said the description was “too remote” from Samantha’s death and did not let the jury hear it.
The jury found Fontae guilty of second degree murder. The court of appeals reversed on the district court’s evidentiary rulings and sent the case back for a new trial on that basis.
The State asked the Iowa Supreme Court, higher up than the Iowa Court of Appeals, to intervene and strike down the order for a new trial. The Iowa Supreme Court upheld the order for a new trial.
Justice Christensen wrote that there were five issues raised on appeal:
1. Whether the mental health records are “hearsay”
2. Whether the mental health records are relevant
3. Whether mental health records are inadmissible “character evidence”
4. Whether mental health records are unfairly prejudicial
5. Whether there was so much other evidence that it wouldn’t matter whether the mental health records were shown to the jury
Justice Christensen went over the hearsay rule—but noted there are exceptions, including for “records of a regularly conducted activity” and “statements made for medical diagnosis or treatment.” The Court also noted that mental health records are typically confidential under state law and may only be made available to a criminal defendant upon a proper showing. The decision held that Fontae made this threshold showing early on in the case.
“Link’s medical records are admissible hearsay under exception for records of a regularly conducted activity” were “statements within medical records regarding her current health, feelings, and plans,” and, further, were statements made for purposes of medical diagnosis. The Court noted that the State conceded the records were thus not hearsay. Fontae wins on this issue.
Moreover, the court noted that the records are absolutely relevant to who killed Samantha: herself or Fontae.
“Therefore, the issue is whether [Samantha's] medical records and related testimony can shed any light on whether or not she committed suicide,” wrote Justice Christensen.
The Iowa Supreme Court reached back to case over 100 years ago in State v. Meyer to hold that evidence to show a predisposition to suicide is admissible because it is relevant to that inquiry.
So is it too much of a smear tactic—is it “character” evidence from the past to prove someone also did a “bad” thing?
The Court noted that mental health evidence did not fit the definition of “good” or “bad” character evidence—and the State conceded that it does not fit that definition. Instead, the State asked the Court to apply the prohibition to it anyway. The Court said the rule only applies to protect against the introduction of evidence offered solely to prove character.
But does it smear more than it proves? In other words, is it “more prejudicial than probative,” in legal phraseology?
The State argued that allowing the evidence would create a “minitrial” on Samantha’s mental health status.
“This argument fails to illustrate why the evidence is unfairly prejudicial to the extent that it substantially outweighs its probative value.”
So, yes, it detriments the State’s case, but it does not do so more than it offers a compelling and plausible, alternative explanation. The Court thus held it was admissible on the basis that it was more probative than prejudicial.
Moreover, the court agreed with the court of appeals that exclusion of alternative suspect evidence—that the victim killed herself—was not merely harmless. It was a wholly different explanation for the crime!
“A criminal defendant’s right to present evidence that the deceased committed suicide is ‘a most important one,’ wrote Justice Christensen, quoting a previous case.
It would have clearly helped Fontae win—and there wasn’t so much evidence on the prosecution case to substantially outweigh the suicide evidence had it been admitted.
“[W]e do not conclude that the State’s case against the defendant rises to the same amount of ‘overwhelming evidence of guilty we have found sufficient to avoid harmless error in the past,” wrote the Court.
Every justice except Justice Mansfield concurred. Justice Mansfield took no part in the decision. As a result, Fontae gets a new criminal jury trial and he will get to put on evidence of the alleged victim’s mental health records and his theory that Samantha, sadly, killed herself.
David A. Cmelik Law PLC had no role in State v. Buelow
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