review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.
from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Scott D.
State seeks further review of a court of appeals decision
reversing the defendant's first-degree murder conviction.
DECISION OF COURT OF APPEALS AFFIRMED IN PART AND
VACATED IN PART; DISTRICT COURT JUDGMENT AFFIRMED.
C. Smith, State Appellate Defender (until withdrawal), and
Stephan J. Japuntich, Assistant Appellate Defender, for
J. Miller, Attorney General, and Kyle P. Hanson, Assistant
Attorney General, for appellee.
asked to determine whether engaging in an illegal activity
disqualifies a defendant from asserting "stand your
ground" justification. The defendant was charged with
first-degree murder and asserted the justification of
self-defense and defense of others. The district court
instructed the jury on the outdated version of justification,
and the defendant's counsel did not object. The jury
found the defendant guilty of murder, and the district court
sentenced the defendant to life imprisonment.
direct appeal, the defendant raised a claim of ineffective
assistance for failure to object to the jury instructions,
challenged the sufficiency of the evidence for specific
intent, and argued the district court abused its discretion
in excluding character evidence of the victim. We exercise
our discretion and only address whether trial counsel was
ineffective and whether the district court abused its
discretion in excluding character evidence of the victim.
Upon our review, we conclude trial counsel was not
ineffective for failing to object to the justification
instruction because engaging in an illegal activity
disqualified the defendant from asserting stand-your-ground
justification. In doing so, we address the appropriate
standard for ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims based
on the failure to preserve jury instruction error. We also
conclude the district court did not abuse its discretion in
excluding character evidence of the victim because the
defendant was unaware of the victim's specific conduct.
Background Facts and Proceedings.
Moines police responded to reports of gunshots near Oakland
Avenue on July 28, 2017. They found Jeffrey Mercado (Pumba)
nonresponsive, convulsing, and covered in blood. Mercado
suffered two gunshot wounds-one to the right side of his back
and one to his right buttock. One bullet punctured both
lungs, tore through the ascending aorta, and exited his
chest. The other bullet entered the right buttock and exited
his right groin. Each bullet followed a back-to-front
trajectory through his body. Mercado's wounds were fatal.
He died shortly after arriving at the hospital. An autopsy
determined the cause of Mercado's death was gunshot wound
to the back; the manner of Mercado's death was homicide.
reported a dark-colored Mitsubishi Eclipse accelerate quickly
down Oakland Avenue within seconds of the gunshots. Des
Moines police located a car matching the description, but
when officers attempted to make a stop, the car fled.
Following a short pursuit, the suspect car crashed in a
residential area. At that time, police officers noticed two
individuals in dark clothing running through backyards. One
individual, Anthony Garcia, was immediately taken into
custody. A K-9 unit picked up the second suspect's
tracks. The K-9 led officers down through a creek bed to a
drainage pipe. That drainage pipe was roughly four feet tall.
The K-9 indicated the suspect's tracks continued into the
drainage pipe. The officers, led by the K-9, climbed into the
drainage pipe and proceeded to walk fifty to seventy-five
yards into the pipe. A large cavity was located at the end of
this pipe. There, the officers found the second suspect. The
suspect was taken into custody and identified as
nineteen-year-old Miguel Angel Lorenzo Baltazar.
scene of the crashed Mitsubishi, officers recovered a handgun
no more than fifteen yards behind the car. On Oakland Avenue,
at the scene of the shooting, officers located five brass
shell casings on the road. Microscopic comparison proved the
handgun recovered near the car fired all five brass shell
casings from Oakland Avenue. Swabs off the recovered handgun
developed a DNA profile, which was compared to Baltazar's
DNA profile. The DNA profile from the handgun was consistent
with Baltazar's DNA profile to a statistical probability
of 1-in-24 sextillion unrelated individuals.
State charged Baltazar with first-degree murder in the
shooting death of Mercado. He filed a notice of self-defense
and defense of others and proceeded to trial on March 26,
2018. A number of responding officers, investigators, and
agreed to provide truthful testimony for the State in
exchange for a twenty-five-year sentence. Garcia testified to
knowing Baltazar for a few years. In the days prior to the
July 28, 2017 shooting, Garcia and Baltazar discussed
Mercado. Baltazar considered Mercado to be "no
good" and "an enemy." Garcia was under the
impression Baltazar "had some beef" with Mercado.
Before the shooting, Garcia admitted to driving Baltazar
around looking for Mercado; they knew Mercado hung out at
Oakland Avenue. When questioned about the purpose of locating
Mercado, Garcia stated, "To be honest, I thought
[Baltazar] was going to fight him." Garcia also knew
Baltazar carried a gun "all the time" but never saw
him fire one.
day of the shooting, Baltazar contacted Garcia requesting he
pick him up at the Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC)
parking lot. Garcia complied. Around 3:00 p.m., Garcia drove
his ex-girlfriend's blue-green Mitsubishi Eclipse to
DMACC where he picked up Baltazar. Baltazar had a friend with
him, and after taking that friend to the probation office,
Baltazar asked that Garcia drive to Oakland Avenue to see if
Mercado was around.
route to Oakland Avenue, Garcia testified Baltazar pulled out
a handgun and stated he wanted to look for Mercado. If
Mercado was found, Baltazar said he would "[j]ust beat
him up, just get in a fight." As the pair suspected,
they located Mercado walking along Oakland Avenue. Baltazar
instructed Garcia to stop the car. Relative to the car,
Mercado was four to five feet away, near the passenger side
of the car, on the sidewalk. Garcia testified Baltazar said
to Mercado, "What's up, Pumba? What's up?
What's up, dude?" Mercado said nothing and ran away
from the car. Garcia then watched Baltazar exit the car,
raise his handgun, and shoot at Mercado. Baltazar shot
directly at Mercado four to five times. Garcia witnessed one
of the bullets hit Mercado, and he watched as Mercado fell to
returned to the car and told Garcia to drive. Although
scared, Garcia drove off fast. Baltazar stated, "Man, I
shot the motherfucker. You saw that mother-fucker fall."
Baltazar instructed Garcia to drive slowly, so not to attract
the attention of other drivers. However, after Garcia spotted
the Des Moines police, he panicked. "And that's when
I lost control. The car was swerving." Garcia crashed
the car in a grassy area near a house. He and Baltazar
"bailed out and ran." Garcia ran for a bit but was
arrested after he surrendered to Des Moines police. Garcia
did not see where Baltazar went; "he just
testified at his trial. He conveyed a concern for his safety
because Mercado had previously threatened him and assaulted
members of his family. Baltazar told Garcia to pick him up at
school so that he could "confront" Mercado. While
Baltazar and Garcia drove to Oakland Avenue, Baltazar denied
saying anything. Baltazar admitted he had a handgun on him,
but according to his testimony, he put it in the glove
compartment until they located Mercado. After they found
Mercado, Baltazar grabbed the handgun from the glove
compartment and stepped out of the car with it at his side.
According to Baltazar, he held the handgun at his side
"to assure [himself] that [he] could talk to [Mercado]
and get his attention." Baltazar needed the handgun in
case Mercado attacked him the moment he got out of the car.
Baltazar said, "Hey, Pumba," to get Mercado's
attention without coming off as aggressive. Mercado noticed
Baltazar's gun, adjusted his pants, and took two or three
steps towards him. Baltazar testified Mercado was wearing
nothing more than gym shorts, yet he was concerned Mercado
was carrying a knife or a gun. He saw Mercado reach for a
black handle or object in his pocket.
yelled, "Pumba, we don't need to do this," but
Mercado continued advancing toward Baltazar. Fearing for his
life, Baltazar brought the gun forward and remembered
"taking aim at the ground and pulling the trigger."
Baltazar claimed he did not intend to hit Mercado, but he did
intend to scare him. When Baltazar looked up, he was
"shocked" and "confused" that he hit
Mercado. Baltazar reentered the car and told Garcia to drive.
Aaron Entriken of the Des Moines Police Department testified
regarding his investigation of Mercado's death. He
interviewed Mercado's girlfriend, who was walking behind
Mercado when the shooting happened. Mercado's girlfriend
indicated to Detective Entriken that Mercado took off running
as the shots were fired. She stated the gunfire was very
trial, Baltazar sought to admit evidence of Mercado's
violent disposition. The district court refused to admit two
surveillance videos- one depicting a fight at a convenience
store the day before Mercado's death and one depicting a
fight on Oakland Avenue a few minutes before Mercado's
death. The district court refused to admit the videos but
allowed two detectives to testify about the contents. Prior
to submission of the case-and without objection from
Baltazar-the jury was instructed in part,
INSTRUCTION NO. 20
The defendant claims he acted with justification.
A person may use reasonable force to prevent injury to the
defendant. The use of this force is known as justification.
Reasonable force is only the amount of force a reasonable
person would find necessary to use under the circumstances to
prevent death or injury.
A person can use deadly force against another if it is
reasonable to believe that such force is necessary to avoid
injury or risk to one's life or safety, or it is
reasonable to believe that such force is necessary to resist
a like force or threat.
The State must prove the defendant was not acting with
INSTRUCTION NO. 21
A person is justified in using reasonable force if he
reasonably believes the force is necessary to defend himself
from any imminent use of unlawful force.
If the State has proved any one of the following elements,
the defendant ...