Duarte Vela appeals his conviction for second degree
murder. Duarte Vela asserted self-defense at trial. The trial
court permitted Duarte Vela to testify he was fearful of the
victim, but would not allow Duarte Vela to explain why he
feared the victim or the severity of the injury he feared.
The jury rejected Duarte Vela's self-defense claim and
convicted him of second degree murder.
appeal, Duarte Vela argues the trial court's evidentiary
rulings were erroneous and violated his right under the Sixth
Amendment to the United States Constitution to present a
defense. We agree and, therefore, reverse his conviction for
second degree murder and remand for retrial.
February 20, 2014, Duarte Vela shot and killed Antonio
Menchaca in Okanogan County. The question at trial was
why Duarte Vela shot and killed Menchaca.
was once married to Blanca Duarte, Duarte Vela's sister.
The former couple had two children, Jesus and a younger
sister. Menchaca left Okanogan in 2007. His whereabouts
during the seven years between then and the shooting were not
clearly established: At some point after 2007 he had been
incarcerated, in May 2012 border patrol agents returned him
to Mexico and, in February 2014, he travelled from Mexico to
his sister's home in Fresno, California.
February 18, 2014, Menchaca traveled from his sister's
home to Okanogan, in part to see his children. Menchaca
arrived at Blanca's apartment in the morning hours of
February 20. Jesus, then 17 years old, saw his dad hugging
his younger sister around 7:00 a.m. that morning. Jesus was
afraid and called Duarte Vela, his uncle. He explained to
Duarte Vela that his dad was at the apartment and asked
Duarte Vela to pick him up after school that day. Duarte
Vela's wife, Billie Jo Wilson, was home when Duarte Vela
received the call and learned from Duarte Vela that Menchaca
was back in town.
Vela decided to go to his sister's apartment to make sure
she and her family were safe. He knew that Menchaca had
threatened Blanca in the past. Duarte Vela was fearful of
Menchaca and concerned that Menchaca posed a threat to Duarte
Vela's family. For these reasons, he took his gun with
Duarte Vela arrived at his sister's apartment, Menchaca
was the only person there. Duarte Vela asked why he was at
the apartment and told him that Blanca did not want to see
him. Duarte Vela told him to stay away from Duarte Vela's
family. Menchaca assured him that he would return to Fresno.
Duarte Vela felt relieved and went to work.
afternoon, Billie Jo, together with her two younger children,
drove to the turnout at the head of her shared driveway to
pick up her oldest daughter who was arriving by school bus. A
sport utility vehicle (SUV) pulled into the turnout just
after Billie Jo parked. The SUV driver and passenger both
looked directly at Billie Jo. She thought the passenger was
Menchaca. As Duarte Vela arrived at the turnout, the SUV
left. Billie Jo told her husband there were two people in the
SUV, she thought the passenger was Menchaca, and she was
frightened. She knew that Menchaca had caused problems with
the family years earlier. Duarte Vela was frightened for his
children and drove after the SUV.
Vela signaled for the SUV driver to pull over, and he did.
Duarte Vela pulled alongside the SUV. Duarte Vela recognized
the driver as Luis Martinez, a distant relative. He did not
see anyone else in the SUV. Duarte Vela said his wife
reported she saw an SUV with two people in it and thought
that one of the people was Antonio Menchaca. Duarte Vela
explained he was concerned because he did not know what
Menchaca's plans were and said he did not want Menchaca
to cause any problems for his family. Martinez assured Duarte
Vela, '"It's only by [sic] myself" 2 Report
of Proceedings (RP) (Jan. 28, 2015) at 438. He did not
mention that Menchaca had hidden himself in the back seat as
they had left the turnout.
Vela returned to his wife. She was still frightened. Soon
after, they both saw Martinez drive by with Menchaca in the
front passenger seat. Duarte Vela realized he had been lied
to, Menchaca was in the SUV a few minutes earlier, and
Menchaca was not returning to Fresno as he had earlier
Vela, even more concerned that Menchaca posed a threat to his
family, followed the SUV. Martinez saw Duarte Vela and pulled
his SUV to the side of the road and parked it. Duarte Vela
stopped his truck in front of it. Duarte Vela and the two men
exited their vehicles. Duarte Vela still had his gun hidden
in his pocket. The way the two men walked toward Duarte Vela
caused him to become nervous. Duarte Vela asked why they were
earlier parked by his family. Menchaca said something about
being owed money by a person who lived near the turnout, but
Duarte Vela did not believe him. Menchaca's tone of voice
sounded threatening to Duarte Vela. At about this time,
Duarte Vela began to draw his gun and Menchaca's hand
went inside his pocket to reach for something. Duarte Vela
fired two or three shots. One shot struck Menchaca in one
arm, went through his torso, and lodged in his other arm.
Either during or just before the shots, Menchaca displayed a
paper in his hand, not a weapon. An injured Menchaca ran into
a nearby orchard where he soon died.
and also Duarte Vela or his wife, called 911. Both callers
said Duarte Vela shot Menchaca. Two sheriffs deputies went to
Duarte Vela's house and found him outside standing on the
porch with a telephone in his hand. Duarte Vela was advised
of his rights and agreed to answer questions. Duarte Vela
related the events of that day, explained he was both angry
and fearful when he confronted Menchaca that afternoon, and
admitted, "'I didn't do the right thing
probably.'" 3 RP (Jan. 29, 2015) at 513. The State
charged Duarte Vela with various firearm offenses and second
trial occurred in January 2015. Prior to jury selection, the
State moved in limine to exclude evidence of Menchaca's
prior bad acts. Duarte Vela responded that he sought to admit
certain prior bad acts of Menchaca known to him to establish
the reasonableness of his fear of Menchaca.
Contested evidentiary rulings
Menchaca's prison threat made around spring of 2012
Vela proffered the testimony of his brother, Alphonso, who
would testify that he had a telephone conversation while
Menchaca was in prison two or three years earlier during
which Menchaca threatened to return to Okanogan and kill
Duarte Vela's entire family. Alphonso also would testify
that he told Duarte Vela of this threat.
Vela argued that the prison threat was admissible to show his
state of mind-reasonable fear of Menchaca-which was an
element of his self-defense case. The State argued that the
threat was too remote, not relevant to self-defense, and not
admissible under any hearsay exception. The trial court
eventually refused to allow Duarte Vela and his brother to
testify about Menchaca's prison threat, mostly because
the threat was too remote in time.
trial court explained:
Well, I'm concerned about the remoteness and the
uncertainty of the timeline. The range two to three years
seems to me to be pretty broad. I would like it if we could
pin that down.
The other concern I have is that these-if it was two to three
years ago and assuming-Well, the problem is we don't
know, number one, if the victim was in prison at the time. I
assume he was. I don't really have any reason to doubt
that. But what I don't know is when he got out. Did he
get out within a week or two of that phone call or did he get
out a week or two prior to coming to the State of Washington?
And the reason I think that's important is because if he
got out within a short time of making the phone call but he
never came to Washington, then it seems to me
it's-there's a relevancy issue. There's a
remoteness issue. On the other hand, if he got out within
just a week or two or a month, some short period of time,
then indeed it may be highly relevant and it is not remote.
So I think what I have to do is to hear more.
And, [defense counsel], I'm going to advise you to call
Alfonso Duarte as a witness. But understand, I'll be
listening very closely for . . . foundational questions ...
to establish the time frame for . . . when this phone call
happened and if it can be established as to when the victim
got out of prison so that the Court is able to rule on the
issue of remoteness.
RP (Jan. 27, 2015) at 12-13. After further argument from the
State, the court reiterated, "If he was released two or
three years ago, then indeed this is too remote." RP
(Jan. 27, 2015) at 14.
at trial, the State brought forth a report from the border
patrol that it had returned Menchaca to Mexico in May 2012.
This showed that Menchaca had been released from prison
before that time, which would have been at least two and
one-half years before the January 2015 trial. Presumably
because of the trial court's comments that "two or
three years ago [was] too remote, " Duarte Vela did not
call Alphonso to testify.
Menchaca's abduction of Maricruz Duarte in 2007
Vela also proffered the testimony of his younger sister,
Maricruz Duarte, who would testify that Menchaca had abducted
her in 2007 when she was just 15 years old, and that Duarte
Vela knew about this. The State argued it had evidence
Maricruz and Duarte Vela had retracted portions of the
abduction accusation and that the testimony was not relevant
to Duarte Vela's state of mind. The trial court excluded
the evidence on the basis that the testimony was irrelevant
Menchaca's domestic violence against Blanca for years
until they separated five or six years before trial
Vela also proffered the testimony of Blanca who would testify
that Menchaca had repeatedly battered her throughout their
marriage, including after they left Okanogan in 2007 to go to
Fresno, and that she had told Duarte Vela about this. She
would have testified that the domestic violence occurred
throughout their marriage and ended five or six years before
trial, presumably because they separated at that time.
Vela also sought to offer the testimony of his wife, who
witnessed some of the domestic violence when the couple lived
trial court excluded both testimonies as too remote in time.
Miscellaneous evidence excluded throughout trial
addition to excluding the above offered testimonies, the
trial court excluded Duarte Vela from testifying: (1) what he
had been told by his family members about Menchaca's
threat to kill his family and Menchaca's domestic
violence against Blanca, (2) why he feared Menchaca being
around his family, (3) why he believed he needed to arm
himself when he went to his sister's apartment to
confront Menchaca, (4) that his wife told him the SUV driver
and Menchaca gave her a threatening look when the SUV first
parked in or near the pullout, (5) why he followed the SUV
the first time, (6) why he believed there were two people in
the car when he followed the SUV the first time, (7)
Martinez's statement to him that he was alone in the SUV,
(8) what he felt when he saw Martinez later drive by with
Menchaca in the passenger seat, (9) why he had an elevated
fear as he went after the SUV for the second time, (10) his
wife being upset when he returned and explained that Menchaca
was not in the SUV, (11) his belief that something was wrong
when Martinez and Menchaca both got out of the car and walked
toward him, (12) what he feared Menchaca and Martinez might
do as they walked toward him, and (13) the degree of bodily
harm he feared just before he shot Menchaca, as Menchaca
became upset and reached into his pocket.
"NO DUTY TO RETREAT" INSTRUCTION AND JURY VERDICT
the end of trial, Duarte Vela requested a "no duty to
retreat" instruction. In denying the instruction, ...