Jury Instruction Bungle Overturns Murder Conviction

A one-word change in a jury instruction has caused reversal of a murder conviction stemming from a fight in a Las Vegas casino parking lot that the defendant says was self-defense.

Changing the correct word, from an honest but “unreasonable” believe in the necessity for self-defense to an honest but “reasonable” believe was enough to merit reversal, according to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The error  did reduce the state’s burden for convicting [Frederic] Dixon of murder instead of voluntary manslaughter,” the panel wrote.

The order last week came in Dixon’s murder conviction in the 2003 killing of Derrick Nunley, after Nunley got into a dispute with Dixon’s girlfriend as she left the casino.

Dixon’s appeal was rejected by the Nevada Supreme Court and his habeas appeal in federal court was also rejected before it got to the 9th Circuit.

When Nunley and several people refused to move so Dixon’s girlfriend could back her car out of the parking lot, she had apparently hit Nunley in the arm as she backed her car up.  This led to Nunley kicking her car and screaming obscenities at her.

Dixon came outside and security intervened when Nunley produced a box cutter.

Nunley and his friends then followed Dixon to another club.  During a fistfight in a parking garage Nunley again pulled out the bix cutter and told Dixon, “I’m going to cut your face off,” and threatened to kill Dixon.

Dixon went to his car, got a gun and rant to Nunley’s car as Nunley sat in the passenger side with the door open.  Dixon shot him four times.  Nunley died at the scene.

Nunley claimed self-defense but the jury found him guilty of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to life in prison.

The jury was told:  “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.”

It was undisputed that the word “unreasonable” should have been used in the jury instruction. The Nevada Supreme Court knew the error could have swayed the jury, the appeals court found.

In each confrontation, it was Nunley, not Dixon, who was the aggressor and Dixon attempted to de-escalate the situation, according to testimony of Dixon’s brother.

The jury was instructed on first-degree murder, second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter, according to the court.

The 9th Circuit order requires the prosecutors to release Dixon from custody on the second degree murder conviction, unless the state undertakes a new trial.  The judges joining in the unsigned opinion include: Judges Marsha Berzon, Sidney Thomas and John Noonan.

Case:  Dixon v. Williams, No. 10-17145


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