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Nevada Supreme Court: Trial Court Must Give Manslaughter Instruction Even When Evidence Is Circumstantial

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Nevada held that a district court must instruct the jury on voluntary manslaughter when requested by the defense so long as it is supported by some evidence, even if that evidence is circumstantial.

Late one night in Las Vegas, witnesses heard rapid gunfire coming from an I-15 on-ramp. They saw an SUV and heard at least one car door slam before the SUV sped off. Arriving at the scene shortly thereafter, they saw a woman who had been shot seven times. A toxicology report later showed the woman had methamphetamine in her system at the time of death.

Meanwhile, Zaharia Marshall was waiting at her residence for Anshanette McNeil to drop off McNeil’s infant son. Instead, Vernon Newson, McNeil’s boyfriend and the infant’s father, arrived in McNeil’s rental SUV to drop off the infant and McNeil’s 2-year-old son. When Newson exited the vehicle, bullets fell from his lap. He was acting frantic, irritated, and nervous. Newson handed Marshall the car seat with the infant, and all of them went inside Marshall’s residence.

Newson kissed his infant’s forehead and then asked Marshall outside, so he could speak with her. Outside, Marshall saw Newson pick up a bullet from the driveway and place it in the gun’s magazine. Marshall also saw McNeil’s shoes and purse in the back seat of the SUV.

Newson handed the purse to Marshall and asked her to tell his son that he always loved him. Marshall asked Newson what had happened, and he responded, “you know, just know that mother fucker’s pushed me too far to where I can’t take it no more.” Newson drove off.

When Marshall took the infant from his car seat, she noticed blood on his pants and on the car seat. She called McNeil’s mother who called police. From the mother’s description, police identified McNeil as the shooting victim. A week later, police arrested Newson in California. They also located the SUV.

McNeil’s blood was on the driver’s side rear seat, seatbelt, door, door handle, and on the steering wheel. Three bullet holes were in the backseat. Newson was charged with, inter alia, first-degree murder with use of a deadly weapon.

At trial, the State’s theory of the case was that Newson pulled the SUV over, turned around, and shot McNeil who bled on the infant. Newson then exited the SUV, pulled McNeil from the vehicle, threw her onto the road, and shot her several more times while standing over her before getting back into the SUV and driving off.

Newson did not testify at trial, but his counsel conceded that Newson shot McNeil. Counsel argued that the evidence showed that Newson became angry and shot McNeil while his passions were inflamed. There was no evidence that Newson exited the vehicle, but there was testimony the couple argued constantly, including while driving.

Counsel pointed to the high level of methamphetamine in McNeil’s system to which an expert witness at trial agreed may have caused her to become unreasonable or threatening. Counsel requested to have the jury instructed on voluntary manslaughter and proffered instructions. The State argued that the instructions were not warranted because there was no evidence of any particular provocation that incited the killing. The district court agreed with the State and instructed only on first- and second-degree murder. Newson was convicted, and he appealed.

The Supreme Court observed that the failure to instruct the jury on defendant’s theory of the case that is supported by the evidence warrants reversal unless the error was harmless. Cortinas v. State, 195 P.3d 315 (Nev. 2008). Voluntary manslaughter is a lesser-included offense of murder. Williams v. State, 665 P.2d 260 (Nev. 1983). Voluntary manslaughter involves “a serious and highly provoking injury inflicted upon the person killing, sufficient to excite an irresistible passion in a reasonable person, or an attempt by the person killed to commit a serious personal injury on the person killing.” NRS 200.050(1). A criminal defendant “is entitled, upon request, to a jury instruction on his or her theory of the case, so long as there is some evidence, no matter how weak or incredible, to support it.” Williams.

The Court opined that there was no direct evidence of the events immediately preceding the killing. The State was permitted to argue that the circumstantial evidence showed first-degree murder, yet Newson was prohibited from arguing his theory regarding what the evidence showed. The circumstances suggested a killing in the sudden heat of passion. It occurred in a rented SUV on a freeway in a busy location in the presence of witnesses who heard rapid gunfire. Newson had to point the gun directly behind him while driving the SUV. He risked shooting his infant child. He knew Marshall was awaiting McNeil.

All told, it was difficult to imagine a more unlikely setting for a deliberate, planned killing, the Court reasoned. Newson’s behavior after the killing suggested it may have happened in the heat of passion. Bullets fell from his lap when he arrived at Marshall’s residence. He made no attempt to hide the pistol, and he gave McNeil’s purse to Marshall. He was very agitated. And he stated McNeil had “pushed [him] too far to where [he] can’t take it no more.” McNeil’s methamphetamine use may have induced her to attack Newson.

The Court explained that a “district court must instruct the jury on voluntary manslaughter when requested by the defense so long as it is supported by some evidence, even if that evidence is circumstantial.” With respect to the present case, it ruled that the evidence could support a voluntary manslaughter verdict, and the district court was required to instruct the jury on voluntary manslaughter. Since the State’s circumstantial case wasn’t strong, the Court was not convinced the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of conviction of the murder charge and remanded for a new trial on that charge. See: Newson v. State, 449 P.3d 1247 (Nev. 2019).

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