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State v. Baltazar

Supreme Court of Iowa

November 22, 2019

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee,

         On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

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

         The 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.

          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.


         We are 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 The district court instructed the jury on the outdated version of justification, and the defendant's counsel did not object.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.

         On 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.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         Des 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.

         Witnesses 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.

         At the 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.

         The 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 witnesses testified.

         Garcia 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.

         On the 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.

         En 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 the ground.

         Baltazar 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 disappeared."

         Baltazar 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.[1]

         Baltazar 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.

         Detective 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 quick.

         During 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,

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 justification.
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 ...

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