State v. Baca

Decision Date31 August 1992
Docket NumberNo. 19366,19366
Citation114 N.M. 668,1992 NMSC 55,845 P.2d 762
PartiesSTATE of New Mexico, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Anthony Ray BACA, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtNew Mexico Supreme Court
OPINION

FROST, Justice.

The State alleged that on June 22, 1989, Anthony Ray Baca and Robert Gutierrez murdered their fellow inmate Luis Valasquez. The State's witnesses testified that Baca and Gutierrez waited for Valasquez in a corridor near the control room at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe. Correctional officers testified that they heard the sound of people running and saw Baca hit Valasquez with a shank (a crude jail-made knife) and saw Gutierrez kick Valasquez. Valasquez died from the wounds inflicted by Baca.

The jury acquitted Gutierrez of all charges but convicted Baca of murder in the first degree and possession of a deadly weapon by a prisoner. Baca received a life sentence for the murder conviction and a nine-year sentence for the possession conviction. Baca appeals these convictions directly to this Court pursuant to SCRA 1986, 12-102(A)(2) (Repl.Pamp.1992). He raises two issues in this appeal: 1) whether the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to admit specific instances of Valasquez' prior violent conduct; and, 2) whether the trial court committed error in refusing to instruct the jury on the defense of duress to the charge of possession of a deadly weapon by a prisoner. We answer both questions in the negative and affirm Baca's convictions.

I.

Baca contends the trial court abused its discretion in excluding the proffered testimony of Gutierrez and Baca describing specific instances of Valasquez' prior violent conduct. As evidenced by an offer of proof, Gutierrez would have testified that: 1) he knew Valasquez was serving a life sentence for murder, 2) Valasquez had bragged to Gutierrez about fatally stabbing a sleeping Colorado cell-mate, and 3) Valasquez had shown him a knife with the name of an inmate he intended to kill written on the tape wrapped around the knife. Baca joined in Gutierrez' testimony and then made his own offer of proof. Baca stated that he knew Valasquez was serving life in prison for murder and therefore had nothing to lose. He also stated that he had seen Valasquez coming out of disciplinary segregation many times for what he believed to be possession of a shank. Finally, Baca would have testified to hearing that Valasquez had killed his cell-mate in Colorado. At that point, Baca declared his intent to claim self-defense to the murder charge.

There are three elements to a self-defense claim. State v. Gallegos, 104 N.M. 247, 249, 719 P.2d 1268, 1270 (Ct.App.1986). First, there must have been the appearance to the defendant of immediate danger of death or great bodily harm. Second, the defendant must have been put in fear by the apparent danger of death or great bodily harm and must have killed the victim because of that fear. Third, the defendant must have acted as a reasonable person would have acted in the same circumstances. Id. At the close of the offers of proof, notwithstanding the claim of self-defense, the trial court refused to admit the specific instances of Valasquez' prior violent conduct described by Gutierrez and Baca.

In general, a person's character is not admissible for the purpose of proving his conformity therewith on a particular occasion. SCRA 1986, 11-404. One exception, however, is that the accused may offer evidence of a pertinent trait of character of the victim. SCRA 1986, 11-404(A)(2). If the court determines that a particular trait of the victim's character would be pertinent to the defense of the accused, the next step is to determine the kind of evidence that may be used to prove that character trait. In cases where the pertinent character trait of the victim goes toward proving an essential element of the defense, proof may be made of specific instances of the victim's conduct. See SCRA 1986, 11-405(B); State v. Bazan, 90 N.M. 209, 214, 561 P.2d 482, 487 (Ct.App.), cert. denied, 90 N.M. 254, 561 P.2d 1347 (1977). The trial court retains the discretion to exclude specific instances of the victim's conduct if the evidence is substantially more confusing, cumulative, or prejudicial than probative. SCRA 1986, 11-403; State v. Ewing, 97 N.M. 235, 237, 638 P.2d 1080, 1082 (1982).

Baca claims the trial court abused its discretion when it excluded specific instances of Valasquez' prior violent conduct. This Court established in 1923 that specific instances of the victim's conduct may be admitted when the defendant claims self-defense and when those instances would reflect on either whether the defendant was reasonable in his apprehension of the victim or on who was the first aggressor. State v. Ardoin, 28 N.M. 641, 643, 216 P. 1048, 1048-49 (1923); see also State v. Melendez, 97 N.M. 740, 742, 643 P.2d 609, 611 (Ct.App.1981), rev'd on other grounds, 97 N.M. 738, 643 P.2d 607 (1982). However, in Ardoin this Court counseled the trial courts to use reasonable discretion to exclude specific instances of the victim's conduct that would confuse more than assist the jury, or be merely cumulative. Ardoin, 28 N.M. at 644-45, 216 P. at 1049. In fact, this Court decided that it would be unwise to develop a hard and fast rule as to admissibility because the facts and circumstances of each case in this area are as important to the determination of admissibility as is the rule. Id. at 646, 216 P. at 1050.

Another hurdle to the admissibility of specific instances of the victim's conduct, and a point of some confusion, is the requirement that, for the purpose of proving the reasonableness of the defendant's apprehension, the defendant knew about the specific instances of the victim's conduct. Ewing, 97 N.M. at 237, 638 P.2d at 1082; State v. McCarter, 93 N.M. 708, 712, 604 P.2d 1242, 1246 (1980). This is a logical requirement in that if the defendant had no knowledge of the victim's violent conduct it could not very well have been a basis for his apprehension. If, however, the conduct is offered to show that the victim was the first aggressor, the defendant's knowledge of the victim's violent conduct is irrelevant and does not need to be shown. See Ardoin, 28 N.M. at 643, 216 P. at 1048-49; State v. Alderette, 86 N.M. 600, 605, 526 P.2d 194, 199 (Ct.App.), cert. denied,86 N.M. 593, 526 P.2d 187 (1974); Perrin v. Anderson, 784 F.2d 1040, 1045 (10th Cir.1986); United States v. Burks, 470 F.2d 432, 437 (D.C.Cir.1972); State v. Miranda, 405 A.2d 622, 625 (Conn.1978); State v. Basque, 66 Haw. 510, 666 P.2d 599, 602 (1983); People v. Lynch, 104 Ill.2d 194, 83 Ill.Dec. 598, 600, 470 N.E.2d 1018, 1020 (1984); Commonwealth v. Beck, 485 Pa. 475, 402 A.2d 1371, 1373 (1979); State v. Furlough, 797 S.W.2d 631, 649 (Tenn.Crim.App.1990); Thompson v. State, 659 S.W.2d 649, 654 (Tex.Crim.App.1983). Recent New Mexico cases have not made this important distinction, and we take the opportunity to do so now. See State v. Gonzales, 110 N.M. 166, 168, 793 P.2d 848, 850 (1990); Ewing, 97 N.M. at 237, 638 P.2d at 1082; McCarter, 93 N.M. at 712, 604 P.2d at 1246; Melendez, 97 N.M. at 742-43, 643 P.2d at 611-12; State v. Lopez, 105 N.M. 538, 547, 734 P.2d 778, 787 (Ct.App.1986), cert. quashed, 105 N.M. 521, 734 P.2d 761, cert. denied, 479 U.S. 1092, 107 S.Ct. 1305, 94 L.Ed.2d 160 (1987). Having so ruled, we specifically make the point that we agree with the guidance enunciated by the Connecticut Supreme Court urging trial courts to use the proper discretion before admitting specific instances of the victim's violent conduct.

We emphasize that the accused is not permitted to introduce the deceased's entire criminal record into evidence in an effort to disparage his general character; only specific convictions for violent acts are admissible. Nor is the accused authorized to introduce any and all convictions of crimes involving violence, no matter how petty, how remote in time, or how dissimilar in their nature to the facts of the alleged aggression.

Miranda, 405 A.2d at 625 (citations omitted).

In this case, Baca offered specific instances of Valasquez' violent conduct that he knew of, and specific instances of which he had no knowledge (the specific instances Gutierrez would have offered into evidence). He offered this evidence both to show that his apprehension of Valasquez was reasonable and to show that Valasquez was the first aggressor. Under these circumstances, the evidence of specific instances known and unknown to Baca could have been admitted into evidence, subject as always to the trial court's discretion under Rule 11-403.

Because the trial court does have a significant amount of discretion in determining admissibility in this area, an abuse of discretion may be found only if the exclusion of the evidence precluded the criminal defendant from proving an element of his defense. Gallegos, 104 N.M. at 253-54, 719 P.2d at 1274-75; State v. Salgado, 112 N.M. 793, 797, 819 P.2d 1351, 1355 (Ct.App.1991). In Gallegos and Salgado, both relied upon by Baca, the appellate court properly found an abuse of discretion under the specific facts and circumstances surrounding those cases. In Salgado, a self-defense homicide case, the appellate court found that the trial court "prevented defendant from developing a major part of his defense" when it excluded the defendant's proffered testimony that the victim bragged about wearing a chain of people's ears around his neck in Vietnam. Salgado, 112 N.M. at 797, 819 P.2d at 1355. The court concluded that this evidence would have been necessary to the jury for it to have made a meaningful determination as to whether the defendant's apprehension of the victim was reasonable, and as to why the defendant brought a gun with him...

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