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Schnitker v. State

Supreme Court of Wyoming

August 23, 2017

JOHN MICHAEL SCHNITKER, Appellant (Defendant),
v.
THE STATE OF WYOMING, Appellee (Plaintiff).

         Appeal from the District Court of Albany County The Honorable Jeffrey A. Donnell, Judge

          Representing Appellant: Office of the State Public Defender: Diane M. Lozano, State Public Defender; Tina N. Olson, Chief Appellate Counsel; Eric M. Alden, Senior Assistant Appellate Counsel. Argument by Mr. Alden.

          Representing Appellee: Peter K. Michael, Attorney General; David L. Delicath, Deputy Attorney General; Christyne M. Martens, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Katherine A. Adams, Assistant Attorney General. Argument by Ms. Adams.

          Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, DAVIS, FOX, and KAUTZ, JJ.

          BURKE, CHIEF JUSTICE.

         [¶1] Appellant, John Michael Schnitker, challenges his conviction of first-degree felony murder on the grounds that the district court erred in preventing him from asserting self-defense as a defense to the charge. He also claims that the district court's issuance of sentences for first-degree felony murder and for aggravated burglary, the underlying felony, violate constitutional protections against double jeopardy. We affirm Appellant's felony murder conviction and remand to the district court for entry of an order vacating Appellant's sentence for the aggravated burglary conviction.

         ISSUES

         [¶2] Appellant presents the following issues:

1. Whether the district court erred in refusing to instruct the jury that self-defense could be raised as a defense to a charge of felony murder.
2. Whether the district court erred in denying Appellant's request to instruct the jury on the definition of the phrase "in the perpetration of" as used in Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-2-101.
3. Whether the district court erred by issuing convictions for felony murder and aggravated burglary, the underlying felony.

         FACTS

         [¶3] On September 26, 2015, Appellant met with the victim, Clinton J. Gartman, and arranged to purchase an "eight ball" of methamphetamine. Appellant gave Mr. Gartman some money for the purchase and then waited to hear from him. Later that evening, after spending the afternoon drinking with his friends, Appellant went to Mr. Gartman's home to acquire the methamphetamine. A surveillance camera recorded the events in front of Mr. Gartman's home.

         [¶4] The surveillance video revealed that Appellant approached Mr. Gartman's truck wearing a hooded sweatshirt. Appellant entered the driver's side of the truck and began searching the vehicle. Mr. Gartman then appeared in front of his home holding a hatchet and discovered Appellant inside his truck. Mr. Gartman approached the driver's side door and attempted to open it, but it was locked. Appellant opened the passenger door and exited the vehicle. Mr. Gartman went around the back of the truck and approached Appellant at the passenger door, holding the hatchet. Appellant then jumped back into the truck, picked up a knife, and fatally stabbed Mr. Gartman in the ensuing scuffle. A toxicology analysis of Mr. Gartman's blood revealed a level of methamphetamine consistent with that of methamphetamine abusers.

         [¶5] Appellant was subsequently apprehended and charged with first-degree felony murder, second-degree murder, and aggravated burglary.[1] Prior to trial, the State filed a motion "to exclude the availability of self-defense as a defense to felony murder." Appellant responded to the motion and, after a hearing, the district court issued an order concluding that self-defense is not available as a defense to first-degree felony murder. The case proceeded to trial and, consistent with its order, the district court instructed the jury that self-defense is not a defense to felony murder. The court also rejected Appellant's proposed instruction defining the phrase "in the perpetration of" as used in the felony murder statute. Instead, the district court determined that the meaning of the phrase was adequately covered by the instruction defining "in the course of committing the crime."

         [¶6] The jury found Appellant guilty of felony murder and aggravated burglary. The district court sentenced Appellant to life imprisonment for the first-degree murder conviction. The court also sentenced Appellant to a consecutive term of 15 to 25 years imprisonment for the aggravated burglary conviction. Appellant timely filed this appeal. Additional facts will be set forth as necessary in the discussion below.

         DISCUSSION

         Self-Defense Jury Instruction

         [¶7] In his first issue, Appellant contends the district court erred as a matter of law when it refused to instruct the jury that self-defense is a defense to first-degree felony murder. A trial court has a duty to instruct the jury on the general principles of law applicable to the case before it. Duran v. State, 990 P.2d 1005, 1007 (Wyo. 1999). We review the refusal to give a proposed jury instruction for an abuse of discretion. Knospler v. State, 2016 WY 1, ¶ 22, 366 P.3d 479, 485 (Wyo. 2016).

When reviewing questions involving jury instructions, we afford significant deference to the trial court's decisions. Farmer v. State, 2005 WY 162, ¶ 20, 124 P.3d 699, 706 (Wyo. 2005). "A trial court is given wide latitude in instructing the jury and, as long as the instructions correctly state the law and the instructions in their entirety sufficiently cover[] the relevant issue, reversible error will not be found." Roden v. State, 2007 WY 200, ¶ 21, 173 P.3d 369, 375 (Wyo. 2007), quoting Duke v. State, 2004 WY 120, ¶ 90, 99 P.3d 928, 954 (Wyo. 2004).

Knospler, ¶ 22, 366 P.3d at 485 (quoting Gonzalez-Ochoa v. State, 2014 WY 14, ¶ 18, 317 P.3d 599, 605 (Wyo. 2014)). The issue of whether self-defense is available as a defense to felony murder is a question of first impression for this Court. This issue presents a question of law, which we review de novo. Duran, 990 P.2d at 1007.

         [¶8] Appellant contends that, under the circumstances of this case, he should have been allowed to assert a defense of self-defense to the charge of first-degree felony murder. The heart of Appellant's claim is that "motor vehicle burglary does not contain any element of aggression or threat of violence." Appellant asserts that, because he was not the initial aggressor, he did not lose his right to self-defense. However, he also contends that, even if he is considered an aggressor, his right to self-defense was reinstated because he attempted to retreat before using deadly force. Accordingly, Appellant claims the district court erred by refusing to instruct the jury on the law relating to self-defense.

         [¶9] The crime of felony murder is set forth in Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-2-101 (LexisNexis 2015), Wyoming's first-degree murder statute. The statute provides that

(a) Whoever purposely and with premeditated malice, or in the perpetration of, or attempt to perpetrate, any sexual assault, sexual abuse of a minor, arson, robbery, burglary, escape, resisting arrest, kidnapping or abuse of a child under the age of sixteen (16) years, kills any human being is guilty of murder in the first degree.[2]

As we explained in Cook v. State, 841 P.2d 1345, 1351 (Wyo. 1992), "[t]he felony murder statute imposes a form of strict responsibility on those perpetrating the underlying felonies for killings they commit. Richmond [v. State], 554 P.2d [1217, ] 1232 [(Wyo. 1976)]." We noted that our legislature had set forth the crimes that would support a felony murder charge on the basis that those crimes involved "a significant prospect of violence":

Wyoming is among those states which limit the imposition of the felony murder rule by listing specific underlying felonies. The list includes those offenses traditionally regarded as "crimes of violence." Black's Law Dictionary 371 (6th ed. 1990). The legislature's selection of sexual assault, arson, robbery, burglary, escape, resisting arrest or kidnapping discloses a purpose of providing a more significant punishment for the negligent or accidental killing which may occur during the commission of one of these crimes. The enumerated felonies are those which the ...

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