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The man convicted of killing a 24-year-old Army veteran after trying to rob him at an ATM in Southeast Albuquerque in 2016 will get a new trial, the state Court of Appeals has ruled.
Matthew Chavez was convicted in 2018 of second-degree murder and lesser charges and sentenced to 23½ years in prison in the slaying of Tyler Lackey.
The Court of Appeals ruled earlier this month that state District Judge Cristina Jaramillo erred by rejecting Chavez’s request for an instruction allowing the jury to consider a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter. The appeals court overturned Chavez’s convictions because of the error.
Chavez will likely remain in prison pending the new trial.
Second Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez’s office criticized the ruling.
“It is hard to understand how someone who attempts to rob an innocent person at gunpoint is entitled to a self-defense instruction or a step down to voluntary manslaughter after the victim defends himself,” DA spokeswoman Lauren Rodriguez said in a statement. “This decision turns the roles of the criminal and the victim upside down and we encourage the Attorney General to ask the New Mexico Supreme Court to reinstate the jury’s verdict.”
The Attorney General’s Office had not filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to intervene as of Friday afternoon, according to online court records, but a spokesman for the agency told the Journal the office wants the state’s high court to take up the case.
Assistant Appellate Defender Steve Forsberg, with the Law Offices of the Public Defender, said the Court of Appeals was right to overturn the convictions.
“The question for the jury was whether or not Matthew believed his life was in danger with Mr. Lackey pointing a gun at him and yelling at him,” Forsberg added.
Lackey, an Albuquerque native who had served in Afghanistan, was withdrawing cash at an ATM on Gibson Boulevard in February 2016 to cover a tip at a nearby restaurant when Chavez, who had a bandanna tied over his face, tried to rob him. Lackey, who had a concealed-carry permit, drew a handgun.
Chavez retreated, but Lackey pursued him with his gun drawn.
The defense argued that Chavez, who was with his girlfriend, then shot Lackey in self-defense.
A jury rejected the self defense argument, but the Court of Appeals ruled that jurors should have had an option beyond finding Chavez not guilty because he acted in self defense or finding him guilty of first- or second-degree murder.
“The evidence raised a question of fact for the jury about whether Mr. Lackey sufficiently provoked defendant by holding him at gunpoint while preventing him from fleeing,” the Court of Appeals said in its ruling. “And, contrary to the state’s argument on appeal, the evidence that defendant initiated the encounter did not preclude defendant from presenting the provocation theory to the jury.”
The opinion was written by Judge Zachary Ives with concurrence from Chief Judge J. Miles Hanisee and Judge Shammara Henderson.
The Court of Appeals also ruled that Judge Jaramillo erred by allowing a police officer to tell jurors her opinion on whether a video recording showed that Chavez was carrying a firearm while trying to rob Lackey, but it rejected the defense argument that all charges against Chavez should have been dropped outright because he didn’t get a timely trial.
While Hanisee joined in the opinion, he also wrote a separate one in which he calls on the New Mexico Supreme Court or the state Legislature to step up to “repair imperfections” in the law that would allow the voluntary manslaughter instruction in a case like this “where an initial aggressor begins a dangerous felony which culminates in the death of his chosen victim or of someone that acts to prevent the occurrence of the planned crime.”
Hanisee noted that Pennsylvania and California don’t allow such a thing. He said New Mexico shouldn’t either. Hanisee argues that the lesser homicide charge shouldn’t be allowed “to mitigate the criminal liability of defendants who kill citizens who exercise lawful force to repel violent and felonious criminal acts.”
Matt Baca, chief counsel for the state Attorney General’s Office, said he hopes the Supreme Court intervenes in this case.
“While we are disappointed in the outcome of the appeal, we believe that this is a critical issue, and we agree with the Court of Appeals opinion that it should be reviewed by our Supreme Court,” Baca said in a statement.
Forsberg, with the Public Defender’s Office, disputes that New Mexico’s voluntary manslaughter law is defective.
“Some people would say if you rob someone they can chase you down and kill you,” he said. “But that’s not what the law says.”
He said the law is fairly well settled on the issue, adding that most jurisdictions handle it the same way as New Mexico.