Jury Instructions – New Mexico Supreme Court Case Update

A recent murder case from New Mexico’s Supreme Court addresses a topic often seen in appeals – jury instructions.

The case stems from an incident where Defendant Marcos Suazo’s “roughhousing” with his friend Matthew Vigil escalated to Suazo pointing a gun at Vigil. Vigil then grabbed the shotgun and placed the barrel into his own mouth. Suazo pulled the trigger, killing Vigil and seriously injuring a friend who was standing behind Vigil.

A major disputed issue in this case was whether Suazo knew the shotgun was loaded when he pulled the trigger. Suazo was convicted of second-degree murder and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, as well as related crimes. Suazo appealed his murder conviction to the Court of Appeals, on a few issues.

The Court of Appeals then certified Suazo’s case to the New Mexico Supreme Court due to the significance of the jury instruction issue.

As to the jury instruction claim, the Supreme Court found the district court erroneously modified the uniform jury instruction for second-degree murder. And because the modified instruction misstated an essential element of the law, the Supreme Court reversed Suazo’s conviction for second-degree murder and remanded for a new trial.

Let’s review what happened at the conclusion of Suazo’s trial.

The State submitted a proposed modified jury instruction for second-degree murder with the insertion of “knew or should have known” in place of the word “knew,” – besides that, it was the same as the model instruction.

The difference between “knew” and “should have known” was the crux of the trial; for if the jurors believed that Suazo did not realize that the shotgun was loaded, and the shooting was therefore an accident (his defense), the jurors could have found that Suazo should have known of the probability of death, or great bodily harm, to Vigil because he clearly did not inspect the gun to determine if it was loaded.

The district court gave the State’s proposed jury instruction over defense counsel’s objection.  Suazo asserted that the district court was wrong to add “or should have known” in instructing the jury on the mens rea required for second-degree murder.

The Court began its evaluation with an examination of the plain language of the statute which reads as follows:

“Unless he is acting upon sufficient provocation, upon a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion, a person who kills another human being without lawful justification or excuse commits murder in the second degree if in performing the acts which cause the death he [or she] knows that such acts create a strong probability of death or great bodily harm to that individual or another.”

According to the statute, a defendant must know that his/her actions create a strong probability of death or great bodily harm; there is no requirement that a defendant “should have known.”

The Court concluded that, “the statute’s plain language and New Mexico’s uniform jury instruction require that the defendant possess knowledge of the probable consequences of his or her acts.   By contrast, neither the statute nor the jury instruction explicitly mentions whether a reasonable person “should have known” of the probable consequences as a mens rea standard.  We must give effect to this plain language unless we detect some ambiguity in the statute that requires a different interpretation.”

The Court then ultimately ruled that “the district court’s misstatement of the essential mens rea element is reversible error requiring a new trial.”

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