The Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on the possible role that the exclusion of mental health records had in the murder conviction of a former Dubuque man.
An attorney representing Fontae C. Buelow, 27, argued that the exclusion of mental health records prohibited his client from fully mounting a defense in the death of his girlfriend, Samantha J. Link, 21, of Peosta, Iowa, on March 31, 2017, inside his Kane Street residence.
Link sustained three stab wounds, two of which would have been fatal, according to investigators. Buelow, who maintained Link stabbed herself, was convicted in January 2018 and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
“Trials like the one involving Mr. Buelow are the reason why innocent people end up in jail, and why people lose trust in the criminal justice system,” said David N. Fautsch, an attorney for Buelow.
During the trial, Buelow’s attorneys attempted to introduce evidence about Link’s previous struggles with mental health, but Iowa District Court Judge Monica Wittig strictly limited the information that could be admitted.
Fautsch told justices that Link’s medical records could have been used to indicate past mental health issues that could have supported Buelow’s defense.
Fautsch stated in a court brief that when Link died at the age of 21, she had attempted suicide at least three times.
“The jury was flatly denied from knowing all this,” Fautsch said.
The Iowa Court of Appeals ruled in December that the medical record exclusions were improper and remanded the case to Iowa District Court of Dubuque County for a possible retrial.
In a motion to the Iowa Supreme Court protesting the appellate court ruling, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said the mental health evidence was properly excluded based on past precedent and that any improper exclusions would have been “harmless” errors.
Genevieve Reinkoester, assistant attorney general, argued Monday that determining the admission of medical records must take timeliness into account.
“We are trying to determine a victim’s state of mind at the time they died, not at a time prior to that,” Reinkoester said.
Reinkoester contended in a court brief that Link’s prior suicide attempts were not relevant because they were prejudicial.
At trial, Wittig had ruled that expert witnesses could review Link’s medical records that were within one year of her death, because they could present evidence of Link’s demeanor and mental health status close in time to the date of her death “and not too remote as to be irrelevant,” the brief states.
Justices questioned both sides about the use of medical records.
Justice Brent Appel noted that stigmas remain associated with mental illness.
“There is a risk when we use mental health records that a fact finder will find that a victim is less than worthy or less trustworthy,” Appel said. “Isn’t that an issue we have to think about in this case?”
Fautsch argued that although medical records are private and constitutionally protected, “that is not a reason for us to pull back from our search for truth.”
Steve Davis, spokesman for the Iowa Judicial Branch, said he had no estimated time for the justices to rule on Wednesday’s arguments, saying that rulings often depend upon the complexity of the case.