Matthew Chavez is serving a 23-year prison term for second-degree murder in the death of an Army veteran he tried to rob at an ATM in Southeast Albuquerque in 2016. But under a ruling by the state Court of Appeals earlier this month, Chavez is entitled to a new trial in which a jury would be required to consider a charge of voluntary manslaughter, a third-degree felony in New Mexico punishable by up to six years in prison. Even if convicted, it’s likely he would go free for time served.
Chavez’s botched attempt to rob 24-year-old Tyler Lackey took a deadly turn after Chavez, who had staked out the ATM, approached Lackey with a bandana tied over his face and tried to rob him. But Lackey, who had gone to get cash to cover a tip at a nearby restaurant, turned out to be anything but a compliant and cowering victim. He had a concealed carry permit and drew a handgun. Chavez retreated, but Lackey pursued with gun drawn, wanting to hold him until police arrived, and Chavez then shot and killed Lackey.
A jury wisely rejected Chavez’s claim of self-defense, but the Appeals Court ruled that District Judge Cristina Jaramillo erred by rejecting a request by defense lawyers for a jury instruction allowing consideration of voluntary manslaughter. A three-judge panel in an opinion written by Judge Zach Ives ruled that refusal was reversible error and ordered a new trial.
The Court of Appeals decision may be an accurate reflection of existing law in New Mexico, but even one of the three judges who concurred in the decision says it’s a terrible result that needs to be addressed by either the state Supreme Court or the New Mexico Legislature.
As Appeals Court Chief Judge J. Miles Hanisee noted in his concurring opinion, the court’s ruling arises from the aptly named doctrine of “imperfect” self-defense in New Mexico, which he writes “has no place in a case such as this, where felonious aggressors who ultimately, if not initially, take lives having first committed inherently dangerous felonies should not be provided a tool of law to escape full fault for their natural consequences of those acts.”
That’s exactly what happened here. The predator staked out his victim, the victim fought back, and the predator killed him. Chavez’s lawyers argue his victim became the aggressor and therefore their client was entitled to claim both self-defense and voluntary manslaughter.
The decision and defense arguments stem from the doctrine of imperfect self-defense in New Mexico that says a defendant who “unreasonably” fears or acts in fear of death or great bodily harm may nonetheless seek a lower level of charge even though he would not otherwise be entitled to do so.
Hanisee argues that not only should the law not allow consideration of voluntary manslaughter in this kind of case but that a self-defense claim should not be allowed either.
His view would seem to be consistent with state Supreme Court rulings that have held defendants who are initial aggressors in inherently dangerous felonies (for example a robber who entered a convenience store with a knife who subsequently stabbed a patron who tried to stop the robbery) could not claim self-defense.
The office of Attorney General Hector Balderas has indicated it will ask the Supreme Court to take up the issue, and Hanisee wrote it is “the role of either our New Mexico Supreme Court or the New Mexico Legislature to repair imperfections in the law, and I urge either or both to do so.”
He’s right, because as the office of District Attorney Raúl Torrez said in a statement, “this decision turns the roles of the criminal and the victim upside down.”
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.