DES MOINES, Iowa -- An Iowa law allowing people to use lethal force to defend themselves doesn’t apply to defendants who engaged in criminal activity prior to the perceived threat, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The ruling reverses an Iowa Court of Appeals’ order in May issuing a new trial to Miguel Angel Lorenzo Baltazar, 21, of Des Moines. He is serving life in prison for the July 2017 shooting death of 23-year-old Jeffrey Mercado. Baltazar maintains he feared Mercado had a weapon and was acting in self-defense under the state’s stand-your-ground law.
The Court of Appeals faulted Baltazar’s trial court for giving a faulty jury instruction in his case that did not abide by the state’s new stand-your-ground law, which was enacted 27 days before the killing.
But the state Supreme Court cited the law’s language that “a person who is not engaged in illegal activity has no duty to retreat from any place where the person is lawfully present before using force.” That implies, the high court wrote, that those engaged in illegal activity have a duty to retreat before using deadly force.
In Baltazar’s case, he was illegally carrying a gun without a license to carry, the court said.
Baltazar had argued he did not get a fair trial because of the faulty jury instruction, in which jurors were told he could not be found to have acted in self-defense if they found that “an alternative course of action was available to the defendant.” Baltazar also argued his public defender was ineffective for failing to object to the faulty instruction.
The Supreme Court rejected both arguments, noting that Baltazar must be able to show that the outcome of his trial likely would have been different if the jury had been given the proper instruction.
The court noted that prosecutors proved Baltazar took a handgun and went looking for Mercado to confront him and shot Mercado twice from behind as Mercado was running away. Baltazar then ran from police and hid in a drainpipe before he was found and arrested.
“Evidence of Baltazar’s guilt was overwhelming, disproving any theory of his justification,” Justice Susan Christensen wrote for the court. “Given this overwhelming evidence, there is no reasonable probability that the result of Baltazar’s trial would have been different.”
The Iowa Attorney General’s Office lauded Friday’s ruling, saying in a written statement it “protects the community and upholds the Legislature’s judgment that trespassers and lawbreakers should not be allowed to stand their ground.”
The State Public Defenders Office, which represented Baltazar, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.