Call it a breath of fresh air and an infusion of common sense: The Iowa Supreme Court last Friday ruled that the Iowa law allowing people to use lethal force to defend themselves does not apply to defendants who engaged in criminal activity prior to the perceived threat.
Friday’s Supreme Court ruling reverses an Iowa Court of Appeals’ order handed down last May ordering a new trial for Miguel Angel Lorenzo Baltazar, 21, of Des Moines.
Baltazar is serving a sentence of life in prison for the July 2017 shooting death of 23-year-old Jeffrey Mercado. At trial and in his appeal, Baltazar maintained he feared Mercado had a weapon and Baltazar was acting in self-defense under Iowa’s stand-your-ground law.
The Court of Appeals faulted Baltazar’s trial court for giving a faulty jury instruction that did not abide by the state’s then-new stand-your-ground law, which had been enacted a mere 27 days prior to the killing.
But the Iowa 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, the court wrote, he was illegally carrying a gun without a license to carry.
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.” He also argued his public defender was ineffective for failing to object to the faulty instruction.
The Supreme Court rejected both of Baltazar’s arguments, noting that he must be able to show that the outcome of his trial likely would have been different if the jury has been given the proper instruction.
The Supreme 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 of Harlan 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 praised the Supreme Court 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.”
We agree wholeheartedly!