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New Mexico Supreme Court Reverses Convictions Based on Double Jeopardy Violations

by Christopher Zoukis

The Supreme Court of New Mexico reversed a defendant’s convictions for shooting at a dwelling resulting in death or great bodily harm and conspiracy to shoot at a dwelling based on a violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause contained in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The case was remanded for resentencing, but other, more serious convictions were upheld by the Court in the February 8, 2018, opinion.

Noe Torres was convicted of being involved in a conspiracy to murder 17-year-old Ruben Perez. In the early hours of September 15, 2005, the conspirators fired nine shots through Perez’s bedroom window. Perez was not hit, but his 10-year-old brother Carlos was shot and killed.

Six years after the crime, Torres was arrested in Mexico and extradited to New Mexico to stand trial on multiple charges. A jury found him guilty of: shooting at a dwelling resulting in death or great bodily harm to Carlos, first-degree murder of Carlos, attempted first-degree murder of Ruben, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, conspiracy to shoot at a dwelling, transportation of a firearm by a felon, and witness intimidation. Torres was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 31½ years.

On appeal, Torres argued that the Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits multiple punishments for causing death or great bodily harm by shooting into a dwelling and first-degree murder for the same death.

The Court explained that double jeopardy may result from: (1) a second prosecution for the same offense after acquittal, (2) a second prosecution for the same offense after conviction, and (3) multiple punishments for the same offense. State v. Gallegos, 254 P.3d 655 (N.M. 2011).

With respect to the third category, the prohibition against multiple punishments can be violated in two ways: (1) multiple punishments under the same statute for the same conduct—unit-of-prosecution issue and (2) conviction under different statutes, but the same criminal activity serves as basis underlying the multiple charges—double-description violation, which is at issue in the present case. State v. Bernal, 146 P.3d 289 (N.M. 2006).

The Court’s analysis of this issue began with a determination of whether Torres’ conduct was “unitary” with respect to shooting at the dwelling and the murder of Carlos. Because it was clear that Torres’ conviction for shooting at the dwelling and the murder of Carlos both arose from the same act—shooting through the Perez window—the conduct was unitary. As such, unless the Legislature intended multiple punishments for this unitary action, the multiple convictions for shooting at the dwelling and first-degree murder violate the Double Jeopardy Clause.

Analyzing the statutes in question, the Court determined that the Legislature did not intend multiple punishments for Torres’ unitary action of shooting into the window, and the two convictions did violate the Double Jeopardy Clause. “Because the crime of causing great bodily harm or death by shooting at a dwelling and the crime of murder are directed at punishing the same social evil, causing death or bodily harm to a person, we conclude . . . that the Legislature did not intend to subject Defendant to multiple punishments for the killing of a single victim,” wrote the Court. “We therefore hold that imposition of multiple punishments for the single death of Carlos Perez would constitute double jeopardy.”

Similarly, the Court determined that Torres’ convictions for conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and conspiracy to shoot at a dwelling, both of which were based on the same conspiratorial goal, violated the prohibition against double jeopardy. The Court reasoned that because there was only one agreement—the agreement to murder Ruben Perez—the multiple crimes committed during the conspiracy were all part of one conspiracy. In other words, the Court determined that in the double jeopardy context, it is the number of agreements that violate the law that matters, not the number of underlying crimes committed in furtherance of the single conspiracy.

After concluding the prohibition against double jeopardy had been violated, the Court had to determine how to deal with the multiple convictions. It explained that when “double jeopardy protections require one of two otherwise valid convictions to be vacated, we vacate the conviction carrying the shorter sentence.”

Accordingly, the Court remanded the case to the district court for entry of an amended judgment and sentence in accordance with this opinion. See: State v. Torres, 413 P.3d 467 (N.M. 2018). 

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