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Cabrera v. State

Supreme Court of Nevada

December 26, 2019

IVONNE CABRERA, A/K/A YVONNE CABRERA, Appellant,
v.
THE STATE OF NEVADA, Respondent.

         Appeal from a judgment of conviction, pursuant to a jury verdict, of conspiracy to commit murder, burglary while in possession of a deadly weapon, and two counts each of first-degree murder with the use of a deadly weapon and attempted murder with the use of a deadly weapon. Eighth Judicial District Court, Clark County; Kathleen E. Delaney, Judge.

          Law Office of Patricia M. Erickson and Patricia M. Erickson, Las Vegas, for Appellant.

          Aaron D. Ford, Attorney General, Carson City; Steven B. Wolfson, District Attorney, and Marc P. DiGiacomo and Alexander G. Chen, Chief Deputy District Attorneys, Clark County, for Respondent.

          BEFORE HARDESTY, STIGLICH and SILVER, JJ.

          OPINION

          STIGLICH, J.

         Nevada law recognizes that a person should not be punished for a criminal act that was committed under duress. But there are limits to the defense. As codified in NRS 194.010(8), duress cannot be asserted as a defense to a crime that "is punishable with death." We are asked to consider, for the first time, whether that limiting language can be interpreted to include crimes that are not punishable with death but require proof of intent to commit a crime that is punishable by death. Considering the statute's plain language, we conclude that it cannot be interpreted to limit the duress defense with respect to crimes that are not punishable with death regardless of the relationship between those crimes and another crime that is punishable with death. Accordingly, the district court did not err in precluding appellant Ivonne Cabrera from asserting duress as a defense to the crime of first-degree murder because that offense is punishable with death, but the court did err in precluding Cabrera from asserting duress as a defense to the other charged crimes, which were not punishable with death. Because we are not convinced the error was harmless, we reverse the judgment as to the convictions of attempted murder with the use of a deadly weapon, conspiracy to commit murder, and burglary while in possession of a deadly weapon and remand for further proceedings as to those charges. We otherwise affirm the judgment of conviction.

         FACTS

         A dispute between appellant Ivonne Cabrera and a group of her friends involving the return of a borrowed car ended with a shooting that left two people dead and two others injured. The deadly series of events started when Cabrera loaned her car to Eric Morales and the car was wrecked while Morales was driving it. Morales lent his car to Cabrera until her car could be fixed. Shortly thereafter, Morales began texting Cabrera asking for his car back. Not wanting to return the car, Cabrera hid it at a friend's house. Later that evening, Cabrera used Morales's car to pick up Jose Gonzales. Cabrera drove to the apartment where Morales lived with Melissa Marin, James Headrick, and Ashley Wantland. Armed with a gun, Gonzales entered the apartment through a bathroom window and opened the front door for Cabrera. Cabrera tricked Headrick into opening his bedroom door, where he and Wantland had been asleep. Gonzales entered the room and shot both Headrick and Wantland. Meanwhile, Cabrera knocked on Marin's bedroom door. When Morales opened the door Gonzales entered and shot Morales and Marin while, according to Marin's trial testimony, Cabrera stood in the doorway. Morales and Headrick died.

         Cabrera and Gonzales were charged with two counts each of murder with the use of a deadly weapon and attempted murder with the use of a deadly weapon, conspiracy to commit murder, and burglary while in possession of a deadly weapon. The State sought the death penalty for the murder charges. Gonzales eventually pleaded guilty, but Cabrera proceeded to trial. Through pretrial motion practice, the State learned that Cabrera intended to assert a duress defense-that Gonzales forced her to drive him to the apartment and help him gain access to the bedrooms once they were in the apartment. The State filed two motions in limine: one to preclude Cabrera's use of a duress defense to the murder charges and another to preclude her use of a duress defense to the other charges. Cabrera opposed the motions. The district court granted the State's motions in part, holding that NRS 194.010(8) precluded the duress defense to first-degree murder and to any of the charges that involved an underlying intent to commit murder. Then, on the eve of trial, the State amended the information to include two additional theories of burglary, to wit, burglary with intent to commit assault and/or battery. The district court indicated it would give the duress instruction on those two theories but also inform the jury that duress was not a defense to any of the other charges. In light of this ruling, Cabrera informed the court she would not argue duress as to any of the charges. Nonetheless, consistent with its pretrial ruling, the district court instructed the jury that duress was not a defense to the charges of murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and burglary based on the intent to commit murder but that it could be a defense to burglary based on the intent to commit assault and/or battery. During closing arguments, while Cabrera did not argue duress, the State highlighted it, indicating to the jury it was available as a defense to burglary, but Cabrera still chose not to use it.

         The jury found Cabrera guilty of all charges but declined to impose a death sentence for either murder, instead selecting sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. The district court subsequently sentenced Cabrera to various terms of years for the other convictions. Cabrera now appeals from the judgment of conviction.

         DISCUSSION

         Cabrera argues that she should have been allowed to argue duress as a defense to all of the charges. We agree except as to the first-degree murder charges.

         The duress defense is an ancient common law affirmative defense "which provides the defendant a legal excuse for the commission of the criminal act." United States v. LaFleur, 971 F.2d 200, 204 (9th Cir. 1991). Under the common law rule, duress is not a defense to murder. Id. at 205; see also 40 Am. Jur. 2d Homicide § 107 (2019) ("It is generally held that neither duress, coercion, nor compulsion are defenses to murder (citations omitted)). A majority of states follow the common law rule. See LaFleur, 971 F.2d at 205; see also Steven J. Mulroy, The Duress Defense's Uncharted Terrain: Applying It to Murder, Felony Murder, and the Mentally Retarded Defendant, 43 San Diego L. Rev. 159, 172 (2006) ("The general common-law rule is that duress cannot be a defense to murder. Most states follow this common-law rule, either by statute, or through case precedent." !(citations omitted)).

         Nevada codified the duress defense at NRS 194.010(8). j Accordingly, whether Cabrera should have been allowed to assert duress as a defense to all of the charges presents a question of statutory interpretation. Our review therefore is de novo. State v. Lucero,127 Nev. 92, 95, 249 P.3d 1226, 1228 (2011). We begin with the statute's text. See Douglas v. State,130 Nev. 285, 286, 327 P.3d 492, 493 (2014). "The starting point for determining legislative intent is the statute's plain meaning; when a statute is clear on its face, a court can ...


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