Appeal Upends Las Vegas Murder Conviction

     LAS VEGAS (CN) – Improper jury instructions tainted the murder conviction stemming from a fatal brawl in the parking lot of the Palms Hotel and Casino, the 9th Circuit ruled.
     The incident began with an altercation in the early morning hours of Nov. 14, 2003, as a woman tried to leave Club 7 in Las Vegas.
     A group of people standing next to the woman’s car refused to move, and she apparently hit one of them, Derrick Nunley, in the arm as she backed up.
     Nunley became upset, kicked her car, and screamed obscenities at her.
     That woman’s boyfriend, Frederic Dixon, then came out of the club and security intervened when Nunley began yelling at him and wielding a box cutter.
     Dixon and his two brothers left the club and drove to the Palms, but Nunley and his friends followed them and they were barred from entering the casino.
     During a fistfight in parking garage, Nunley pulled the box cutter out again and told Dixon, “I’m going to cut your face off,” and that he would kill Dixon.
     “At some point, Nunley returned to his car and entered it from the passenger side, without closing his door,” the 9th Circuit decision published Wednesday states. “Dixon returned to his vehicle, got a gun, ran to Nunley’s car, and shot him four times. Nunley died at the scene.”
     Though Nunley claimed self-defense, a Clark County jury found Nunley guilty of second-degree murder.
     He was sentenced to life, and the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed despite finding that the trial court had improperly instructed the jury on self-defense.
     A federal judge also refused to grant Nunley habeas relief, but he finally found relief from the San Francisco-based federal appeals court.
     The unpublished decision notes that the erroneous jury instructions read: “An honest but reasonable belief in the necessity for self-defense does not negate malice and does not reduce the offense from murder to manslaughter.” (Emphasis added by court.)
     “It is undisputed that the italicized word should have been ‘unreasonable,'” the three appellate judges added.
     The Nevada Supreme Court knew the error could have swayed the jury, the court found.
     “In other words, the Nevada Supreme Court held that such a belief in fact could contribute to reducing a murder charge to manslaughter under state law,” the 18-page opinion states.
     The Nevada Supreme Court also did not look at all the evidence when considered Dixon’s appeal, according to the ruling.
     “Although the Nevada Supreme Court stated that it considered in so concluding ‘the totality of … the evidence admitted at trial,’ it recited only the testimony that supported the verdict and did not acknowledge any of the testimony supporting provocation through reasonable fear of serious injury,” the ruling states. “Proper application of the Chapman standard requires consideration of ‘the trial record as a whole.'”
     Nevada must release Dixon or retry him.

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