PALMER — Thomas Cottam Jr. was 23 in 2014 when he confessed to the machete killing of Steven Garcia, the 81-year-old owner of a raspberry farm along the Old Glenn Highway outside Palmer.
A Palmer jury in 2015 convicted the Anchorage man of first-degree murder as well as two counts of second-degree murder. The next year, he was sentenced to serve at least 30 years in prison.
This week, the Alaska Court of Appeals reversed two of the 28-year-old Cottam’s three murder convictions, saying a Palmer Superior Court judge who presided over his trial failed to give the jury proper instructions in the “heat of passion” defense before they began deliberating.
The opinion, published Wednesday, means Cottam is entitled to a new trial if the state wishes to pursue the two murder charges again.
Cottam and the farmer crossed paths in May 2014 when he was hitchhiking. Garcia picked him up and offered him a job at his small berry operation, Garcia’s Alaska Farm, near the Knik River Bridge. Several days later, Cottam told investigators, Garcia came after him with a machete and Cottam “blacked out” before regaining consciousness over Garcia’s dead body, the machete in his hand.
Police found Garcia with several 5-inch cuts and stab wounds to multiple parts of his body. A 24-inch machete was found in the living room, as well as a semi-open butterfly knife, both with blood on them, according to reports at the time. Investigators learned from a friend of Cottam’s that he told them he cut Garcia’s throat and stabbed him before blacking out. He also took the dead man’s dog and his wallet, saying Garcia owed him money.
Prosecutors during sentencing said Cottam was a daily methamphetamine user for three months into early 2014. Another farm worker said Garcia sometimes intimidated workers with a knife.
The judge presiding over his trial, Vanessa White, agreed to instruct the jury in self-defense but not heat of passion, according to the memorandum opinion handed down by the three-judge appeals court.
According to the opinion, the heat of passion defense includes three elements: The defendant committed a homicide while in a heat of passion; that their passion was the result of a serious provocation by the victim; and that they committed the homicide before there was reasonable opportunity for their passion to cool.
A defendant is entitled to such instruction if they present at least some evidence of each of the three, the opinion states.
Cottam’s contention that Garcia first threatened him with the machete constitutes “serious provocation” and the immediacy of the killing after the reported attack indicates it happened “before there was a reasonable opportunity for any passion to cool,” Judge Bethany Spalding Harbison wrote in the opinion.
As for whether Cottam killed Garcia while in the heat of passion, Harbison wrote, “the severity of the injuries sustained by Garcia, combined with Cottam’s claim that he blacked out and then woke up standing over Garcia’s body and holding a machete, support the inference that Cottam was in the throes of emotion and out of control when he repeatedly hacked at Garcia with a machete.”
The opinion does not change one of the second-degree murder convictions because the heat of passion defense doesn’t apply to the extreme indifference murder statute underlying the conviction.
Cottam remained incarcerated at Seward’s Spring Creek Correctional Center as of Friday. His scheduled release date was listed as June 2044 on an online offender custody database.