South Dakota Chief Justice Steven Jensen gestures as he participates in oral arguments with other state Supreme Court justices on March 23, 2023, in Brookings. (David Bordewyk/South Dakota Newspaper Association)
BROOKINGS — In 2019, Minnesota native Ramon Deron Smith killed a man and wounded two others in a Sioux Falls parking lot during his first visit to the city.
He kept shooting as his targets fled across a busy urban thoroughfare.
After doing so, he drove back to Minneapolis, shaved his head, ditched the vehicle he’d come to Sioux Falls to pick up and stayed in a motel, not his home.
Even so, Smith, now serving a life sentence for second-degree murder in South Dakota, maintained throughout his 2021 trial that he’d only grabbed someone else’s gun, walked out to the parking lot and fired because he feared for his life and the lives of others in his company.
A group of people, including Smith’s sister, had been feuding over Facebook for hours by then. Snapchat photos of firearms had been sent. Just before the shootings took place, there were several people stationed at either exit of the apartment complex where she and Smith were.
“It was clear that they were trying to block the exit,” said Manny de Castro, one of the Sioux Falls defense attorneys who represented Smith at his trial.
De Castro outlined those details Thursday during oral arguments to the South Dakota Supreme Court, which began its day of hearings at South Dakota State University by considering Smith’s request to toss his conviction. The court will issue a decision later.
Smith cited several reasons for the request in the legal briefs submitted before the hearing, including that an officer’s testimony about Smith’s inability to legally use firearms due to his felony criminal history unfairly swayed the jury.
His primary argument, however, hinges on self defense and represents the high court’s first opportunity to consider the impact of a law that took effect on July 1, 2021, just weeks before Smith’s trial began: South Dakota’s stand your ground law.
The law, passed during the 2021 legislative session, bars the criminal prosecution of people who kill when they fear that their own lives are in danger, even in public spaces.
Smith’s lawyers argue that his judge should have leaned on that law to allow Smith to argue for immunity before the trial took place.
One of the elements that the state had to prove was that the killing was not lawful.
– Manny de Castro, defense attorney
Legal argument for immunity
Newly adopted laws typically aren’t retroactive unless the Legislature specifies that they are. But De Castro doesn’t claim that the “stand your ground” law – which took effect after his client’s crime, but before the trial – is retroactive in the traditional sense.
Instead, de Castro argued, the law was a “procedural” change, meaning it altered the way in which an existing crime is prosecuted in the criminal justice system. Procedural changes are understood to be retroactive for the court system, according to state Supreme Court precedent.
In other words, once a “procedural” law takes effect, it factors into the way all cases in which it might apply are handled, regardless of when a crime may have taken place.
That’s important for Smith, de Castro said, because stand your ground immunity may well have removed a key piece of the prosecution’s case against his client.
“One of the elements that the state had to prove was that the killing was not lawful,” de Castro said.
That’s why de Castro asked Smith’s judge to hold a hearing to determine if the new law applied in the killing of Larry Carr Jr., the homicide victim in the case. The judge, the now-retired Bradley Zell, declined to allow one.
The law wasn’t retroactive, Zell said.
The Smith situation is the first for which justices are being asked to decide if the stand your ground law is, in fact, procedural in nature, and therefore retroactive.
If it is, there is another hurdle for Smith. He would need to show that the lack of a statutory immunity hearing on the matter of self defense before a judge – which would have involved the judge weighing the same kinds of evidence that would be heard at a trial – might have led to a different outcome than the jury’s guilty verdict.
He would have to prove, in legal terms, that he was “prejudiced” and less likely to win the case because a judge didn’t ask the self defense questions first.
He willingly left a locked apartment with a gun and proceeded to shoot into a group of people.
– Stephen Gemar, assistant attorney general
Prosecution: Smith not immune
Assistant Attorney General Stephen Gemar argued that the issues raised by Smith amounted to harmless errors.
“He was given his trial by a jury,” Gemar told the justices. “He was found guilty. Whether he was justified (in the killing) was a question for the jury.”
The question of self defense was an important one. A second-degree murder conviction carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole. In order to prove that particular crime, prosecutors must show not only that one person killed another intentionally, but did so “evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life.”
Were the killing in self-defense, the prosecution could not clear that bar. To that end, de Castro argued that a police officer’s testimony that Smith was not lawfully allowed to possess a firearm due to his criminal history made a difference.
During jury selection, jurors were asked how they felt about gun ownership and gun use for self-defense, de Castro said. Most mentioned that they were supportive of that right, as long as the person shooting has the right to possess firearms.
A person’s lack of a right to own a firearm does not bar them from using a gun in self-defense from a legal standpoint, but de Castro said “the fact that he unlawfully possessed a firearm changed our burden” near the end of the trial.
Had de Castro been prepared to address questions of Smith’s gun rights, he said, he may have made different decisions when striking potential jurors.
As he’d done with the question of a stand your ground hearing, Gemar described that issue as inconsequential for the outcome.
Zell instructed jurors not to consider Smith’s gun rights, Gemar said. More persuasive for jurors, he argued, was Smith’s behavior before, during and after the confrontation that killed Larry Carr Jr.
“He willingly left a locked apartment with a gun and proceeded to shoot into a group of people,” Gemar said.
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