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State v. Lorenzo Baltazar

Court of Appeals of Iowa

May 15, 2019

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Scott D. Rosenberg, Judge.

         Miguel Angel Lorenzo Baltazar appeals his conviction for murder in the first degree.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, (until withdrawal) and Stephan J. Japuntich, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Kyle P. Hanson, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Considered by Vogel, C.J., Vaitheswaran, J., and Carr, S.J. [*]

          VOGEL, Chief Judge.

         Miguel Angel Lorenzo Baltazar appeals his conviction for murder in the first degree. He argues his counsel was ineffective for failing to object to jury instructions on his justification defense, and both parties argue the court abused its discretion in allowing only certain character evidence of the decedent. Because the 2017 amendments to Chapter 704 of the Iowa Code should have resulted in the jury being instructed without the "alternative course of action" language, we find counsel breached an essential duty in failing to object when the older version of the justification instruction was given, and prejudice resulted. The evidence presented at trial was sufficient to prove Lorenzo Baltazar acted with the specific intent to kill, and thus we reverse and remand for new trial. Further, should the issue of the character evidence arise during the new trial, we also find the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing only certain character evidence.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings

         On the afternoon of July 28, 2017, Des Moines police responded to reports of gunshots on Oakland Avenue. Upon arrival, officers found one person, later identified as Jeffrey "Pumba" Mercado, fatally wounded from apparent gunshot wounds. Officers began searching for a car seen leaving the scene. When an officer attempted to stop a matching car, it sped away but soon crashed in a residential area. After a brief search of the area, officers captured Anthony Garcia in a backyard and Lorenzo Baltazar in a drainage pipe. Officers also recovered a handgun in the grass near the suspects' crashed car.

         An autopsy concluded Mercado's death was a homicide as a result of a gunshot wound to his back. The autopsy showed two bullets had passed through Mercado, one entering his right buttocks and the other entering his right back.

         Lorenzo Baltazar proceeded to trial for Mercado's death from March 26 to April 2, 2018. Numerous witnesses testified, including several Des Moines police officers and investigators as well as multiple civilians who heard gunshots or responded to the shooting. Garcia also testified for the State, acknowledging he agreed to a plea bargain based in part on providing truthful testimony. According to Garcia, Lorenzo Baltazar had a previous disagreement with Mercado, calling him "an enemy." Garcia had driven Lorenzo Baltazar around in search of Mercado in the days before the shooting. On the afternoon of July 28, 2017, Garcia picked up Lorenzo Baltazar, and Lorenzo Baltazar asked him to drive to Oakland Avenue to look for Mercado. As they neared Oakland, Lorenzo Baltazar pulled out a gun and said he was going to fight Mercado if they found him. They saw Mercado walking along the sidewalk on Oakland, and Garcia stopped the car a few feet away from him. Lorenzo Baltazar said, "What's up, Pumba," and they started arguing with Mercado. Mercado did not reply and began to run away, and Lorenzo Baltazar exited the car and rapidly fired "four or five" times directly at Mercado.[1] Mercado fell after being hit, and Lorenzo Baltazar told Garcia to drive them away. Lorenzo Baltazar initially instructed Garcia to drive slowly to avoid drawing attention. When the officer tried to stop them, Garcia panicked and sped away.

         Lorenzo Baltazar also testified at his trial, stating he first learned of Mercado about eighteen months before the shooting. Since then, both his uncle and his cousin had been injured in altercations with Mercado, and Lorenzo Baltazar suffered a broken arm in another altercation. More recently, Mercado had sent messages to Lorenzo Baltazar through social media threatening him with physical harm such that he believed his life was in danger. Lorenzo Baltazar eventually decided "[t]o confront [Mercado] and pretty much ask him what did I do." When Garcia picked him up on the afternoon of July 28, 2017, Lorenzo Baltazar said he wanted to go to Oakland Avenue to "confront" Mercado. When they encountered Mercado on the street, Lorenzo Baltazar stepped out of the car and held the handgun at his side in case Mercado rushed the car. He said, "Hey, Pumba," to draw his attention without appearing to be aggressive. Mercado looked at him, adjusted his pants, and took a couple steps toward the car. As Mercado reached for his pockets, Lorenzo Baltazar thought he saw a handle for a gun or knife in his pocket.[2] He said, "Pumba, we don't need to do this." Mercado continued advancing, and Lorenzo Baltazar-fearing he would be killed-panicked, raised the handgun, and pulled the trigger multiple times. He claimed he did not intend to hit Mercado but did intend "[t]o at least scare" him. "[S]hocked" and "confused" that he had hit Mercado, he reentered the car and told Garcia to drive.

         Prior to trial, Lorenzo Baltazar sought to admit two videos showing Mercado's actions before the shooting, asserting they both depicted his violent character. The court denied the request, but it allowed him to question two detectives about the content of the videos. According to one detective, a store surveillance video from the night before the shooting showed Mercado conversing with another man and then "Mercado can be seen punching the guy a couple of times." According to another detective, a home surveillance video from minutes before the shooting showed Mercado walking up to a car and "taking several swings inside the vehicle at the individual sitting in the passenger seat," causing minor injuries to the passenger.

         The jury found Lorenzo Baltazar guilty of murder in the first degree, affirming in a special interrogatory he was armed with a dangerous weapon. The court ...

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