State v. Lymon

CourtSupreme Court of New Mexico
Citation488 P.3d 610
Decision Date27 May 2021
Docket NumberNo. S-1-SC-37729,S-1-SC-37729
Parties STATE of New Mexico, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Davon LYMON, Defendant-Appellant.

Harrison & Hart, LLC, Nicholas Thomas Hart, Albuquerque, NM, for Appellant

Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General, John J. Woykovsky, Assistant Attorney General, Santa Fe, NM, for Appellee

BACON, Justice

{1} Defendant Davon Lymon shot Albuquerque Police Department (APD) Officer Daniel Webster six times during a traffic stop in 2015. Defendant was charged with and convicted of first-degree murder, two counts of tampering with evidence related to first-degree murder, forgery, shooting from a vehicle resulting in great bodily harm, receiving or transferring a stolen vehicle, and resisting, evading, or obstructing an officer. The trial court later vacated his convictions for shooting from a vehicle and for one of the two tampering counts.

{2} On direct appeal, Defendant raises challenges to the district court's final verdict, claiming jury coercion, improper denial of a self-defense instruction, improper admission and improper exclusion of evidence, and juror misconduct. Defendant also argues that these issues resulted in a cumulative error. Defendant's arguments are not persuasive, and we affirm Defendant's convictions.

I. BACKGROUND

{3} Officer Webster pulled over Defendant and passenger Savannah Garcia in a Walgreens parking lot because Defendant appeared to be driving a stolen Honda motorcycle. After the motorcycle came to a stop, Officer Webster exited his vehicle with his weapon raised and pointed toward Defendant and Garcia. Officer Webster ordered Defendant and Garcia to raise their hands over their heads and approached the motorcycle. Defendant lowered his hands, although Garcia left hers above her head. During the encounter, Officer Webster stepped on Defendant's foot. Defendant asked why Officer Webster was stepping on his foot, and Officer Webster responded, "This is how I control you." Officer Webster holstered his weapon and attempted to handcuff Defendant. Officer Webster handcuffed Defendant's left hand, and then as Officer Webster tried to handcuff Defendant's right hand, Defendant appeared to experience pain in his shoulder.

{4} Approximately forty-eight seconds after Officer Webster holstered his weapon, Defendant leaned away from Officer Webster, drew his own pistol with his right hand, and shot Officer Webster. Defendant fired the first four shots in rapid succession. The fifth and sixth shots were separated by more time and were fired as Officer Webster was running away and attempting to take cover. Defendant and Garcia then fled the scene separately.

{5} After a thirteen-day trial, the jury deliberated and returned with its preliminary verdict. For Count 1, the jury found Defendant "not guilty" of first-degree murder but neither filled out a verdict form for a lesser-included offense of Count 1, second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter, nor reported any disagreement to the trial court as the jury instructions directed. But the jury's findings for the special verdicts and other counts suggested that the jury found that Defendant was guilty of first-degree murder.

{6} After the jury returned its preliminary verdict forms, the trial court told the parties, "[The jurors] turned the verdict forms over, but there's an inconsistency [with Count 1] and the court does not know what their verdict is based on what they have answered." The trial court noted, "It appears on all counts, [the jurors] found [Defendant] guilty, but what I'm concerned about is the special interrogatories indicate that he committed first-degree murder, but at the same time, they wrote on [the verdict form for Count 1] not guilty of first-degree murder. ... And then [the jurors] did not fill out any of the other lesser-included offenses."

{7} After discussing the inconsistency with the parties, the trial court decided to send a note asking the jury to clarify its verdict instead of polling the jury. The State had suggested polling the jury, but Defendant opposed it. The trial court decided not to poll the jury "just yet." Instead, the trial court stated, "I need to send in a question, I believe, and I need to frame it in such a way that it doesn't influence them one way or another, but I need to find out [the verdict for Count 1]." Eventually, the trial court decided to send all of the verdict forms back to the jury with a question that stated, "What is your verdict as to Count 1?" Defendant objected to the phrasing, suggesting that the trial court phrase the question in a more neutral way and direct the jury to consider the lesser-included offenses.

{8} The jury subsequently returned the verdict forms for Count 1 with both the "not guilty" and "guilty" verdict forms for first-degree murder signed. The jury told the bailiff that the verdict form on top—the guilty verdict form—was the proper verdict form for Count 1. Defendant moved for a mistrial, which the trial court denied. The trial court then sent back to the jury new verdict forms, the jury instructions, and a second note stating, "You have signed both verdict forms as to Count 1. The Court has provided new verdict forms as to Count 1. Please indicate your verdict on these new forms as to Count 1."

{9} The jury returned the verdict forms a third time, finding Defendant guilty of first-degree murder. The trial court polled the jury, whereupon the jurors unanimously confirmed that the verdicts reflected their intent.

II. DISCUSSION

{10} The primary issue in this case is whether the trial court's conduct coerced the jury. After considering a trial court's authority to clarify an inconsistent and ambiguous preliminary verdict, we conclude that the trial court's conduct was not coercive. We also conclude that the trial court did not err when it denied a self-defense instruction, included and excluded certain evidence, and denied an evidentiary hearing based on Defendant's allegation of juror misconduct.

A. The District Court's Communication Clarified the Verdict and Was Not Coercive

{11} Defendant contends that the trial court committed a reversible error when it did not accept the preliminary verdicts, including the "not guilty" verdict for first-degree murder. He suggests that the trial court coerced the jury by inquiring into the inconsistent preliminary verdict for Count 1. As we explain below, the trial court did not coerce the jury or abuse its discretion when it sought to clarify the jury's inconsistent verdict and denied Defendant's motion for a mistrial.

1. Standard of review

{12} The trial court denied Defendant's motion for a mistrial after the jury returned both guilty and not guilty verdict forms for Count 1. "A denial of a motion for mistrial is reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard." State v. Swick , 2012-NMSC-018, ¶ 68, 279 P.3d 747 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting State v. Johnson , 2010-NMSC-016, ¶ 49, 148 N.M. 50, 229 P.3d 523 ). "An abuse of discretion occurs when the ruling is clearly against the logic and effect of the facts and circumstances of the case." Id. ¶ 68 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting State v. Rojo , 1999-NMSC-001, ¶ 41, 126 N.M. 438, 971 P.2d 829 ). An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court misapprehends or misapplies the law. State v. Worley , 2020-NMSC-021, ¶ 13, 476 P.3d 1212 ; Murken v. Solv-Ex Corp ., 2005-NMCA-137, ¶ 12, 138 N.M. 653, 124 P.3d 1192.

2. A trial court may clarify a jury's preliminary verdict before entering the final verdict

{13} A trial court has the authority to clarify a jury's preliminary verdict before entering a final verdict. See State v. Aguilar , 2019-NMSC-017, ¶¶ 52, 54, 451 P.3d 550. A preliminary verdict expressed by the jury's preliminary verdict forms is not, in fact, a final verdict. See id. ¶¶ 52, 54. This Court has described preliminary verdict forms and other indications of a jury's deliberations as "no more than an initial vote," id. ¶ 52, and "a snapshot of the jury's thinking partway through deliberations," State v. Phillips , 2017-NMSC-019, ¶ 18, 396 P.3d 153 (referring to a note sent from the jury to the trial court indicating a possible deadlock). "[A] verdict is not final until it is ‘rendered by the jury in open court and accepted by the court.’ " Aguilar , 2019-NMSC-017, ¶ 52, 451 P.3d 550 (quoting Phillips , 2017-NMSC-019, ¶ 18, 396 P.3d 153 ).

{14} A trial court is not compelled to accept a preliminary verdict. See id. ¶¶ 52, 54 ; State v. Apodaca , 1997-NMCA-051, ¶¶ 19-20, 123 N.M. 372, 940 P.2d 478. Neither is a trial court "empowered to refuse arbitrarily to accept a jury verdict." Apodaca , 1997-NMCA-051, ¶ 25, 123 N.M. 372, 940 P.2d 478. If the actual intent of the jury, as reflected in a preliminary verdict, appears ambiguous or inconsistent, it is within the trial court's authority to refuse to accept the preliminary verdict and seek to clarify the jury's intent. See id. ¶ 21 (citing State v. Searles , 113 Conn. 247, 155 A. 213, 216 (1931). "[T]he trial court is under a nondiscretionary duty to clarify any ambiguity in the jurors’ responses and obtain a clear and unambiguous response from the jury ...." Phillips , 2017-NMSC-019, ¶ 14, 396 P.3d 153 (referring to a trial court's duties related to jury polls). Indeed, "[i]n any case upon the appearance of any uncertainty or contingency in a jury's verdict, it is the duty of the trial judge to resolve that doubt, for there is no verdict as long as there is any uncertainty or contingency to the finality of the jury's determination." State v. Holloway , 1987-NMCA-090, ¶ 18, 106 N.M. 161, 740 P.2d 711 (brackets omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting United States v. Morris , 612 F.2d 483, 489 (10th Cir. 1979).

{15} Polling the jury under Rule 5-611(E) NMRA is one way to clarify a jury's intent when it presents the trial court with an ambiguous preliminary verdict. See Apodaca , 1997-NMCA-051, ¶ 23, 123 N.M. 372, 940 P.2d 478. While ...

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