Crime & Courts

Alaska Supreme Court vacates murder conviction in 2011 ‘snitch killing’ case

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The Alaska Supreme Court has vacated the conviction of a 32-year-old Anchorage man sentenced to almost 60 years in prison for a 2011 murder.

Marquinn Jones-Nelson was convicted on charges of murder and evidence tampering linked to the shooting death of Devante Jordan at an East Anchorage party a few days after Jordan’s 19th birthday. Jones-Nelson was sentenced in 2014.

The state’s highest court, in a 47-page opinion published Friday, found the Anchorage Superior Court judge who presided over the trial read the jury an incorrect summary of the state’s self-defense law.

As of Tuesday, Jones-Nelson was still imprisoned at Wildwood Correctional Center, where he’s been jailed since March 2011, according to the Alaska Department of Corrections.

His attorney got through to him Friday, just after the state Supreme Court opinion came out, to tell him the news.

“He cried,” said Cynthia Strout, a longtime Anchorage lawyer who specializes in criminal appeals. Then, Strout said, she explained what happens next before talking with family members too.

Strout said the decision highlighted the importance of taking care in drafting jury instructions.

“Alaska has very strong self-defense statute,” she said. “And the Legislature intended it to be followed.”

[Previous coverage: ‘Snitch killing’ or self-defense? Murder trial opens in 2011 case]

The Supreme Court sent the case back to Anchorage Superior Court. Now Jones-Nelson reverts to the status of someone just arrested on murder and evidence tampering charges. He should get a status hearing within the next 30 to 45 days, according to state Department of Law officials.

At that hearing, the judge will set bail based on several factors, including how likely Jones-Nelson is to flee the state and any danger he poses to the community.

After the arrest, in March 2011, federal authorities charged Jones-Nelson with dealing crack cocaine. He pleaded guilty, and a judge sentenced him to eight years in prison in that case. He has three prior state criminal convictions on his record: a 2008 no-contest plea on felony drug possession charges; a 2009 misdemeanor for disobeying a court order; and a 2010 conviction for taking contraband into jail.

Prosecutors with the state Department of Law are still reviewing the opinion, said John Skidmore, deputy attorney general for the state’s criminal division.

The state will need to decide if prosecutors want to hold another trial. Attorneys need to see if the evidence used in the first trial — witnesses, physical evidence — is still available now, Skidmore said.

“The typical answer on murder in the first degree is we absolutely intend to retry that case,” he said. “But we need to do that other evaluation before I can answer that definitively.”

Prosecutors called Jordan’s shooting death at a party in a Mountain View apartment days after his 19th birthday a “snitch killing.”

During the murder trial, they said Jones-Allen fired six bullets from a .38-caliber revolver after calling out Jordan, who earlier had provided authorities with the names of people involved in the 2009 shooting death of a 17-year-old caught in a gun battle at a party.

During the trial, Jones-Nelson’s lawyer said his client fired in self-defense because he thought Jordan was going to hurt him. Witness testimony during trial differed on whether Jordan reached for a gun before the shooting.

Jordan had previously knocked the smaller Jones-Nelson unconscious in a fight and approached him “aggressively” the night of the party, according to a summary included in the Supreme Court opinion. Jones-Nelson pulled out a handgun and shot Jordan, disposed of the gun, asked friends to lie about where he was and tried to get false identification to leave the state.

Alaska law permits the use of deadly force “when and to the extent the person reasonably believes the use of deadly force is necessary.”

The Supreme Court opinion, which includes a dissent from former Chief Justice Joel Bolger, centered on one of three instructions to the jury before they began deliberating.

The problematic jury instruction was drafted by prosecutor James Fayette, the opinion states. It said a basic tenet of self-defense doctrine is that the use of deadly force is unreasonable “... if non-deadly force is obviously sufficient to avert the threatened harm.”

“Even in circumstances when a person is permitted to use deadly force in self-defense,” the instruction continued, “that person may still not be authorized to employ all-out deadly force because such extreme force is not necessary to avert the danger.”

Strout appealed on behalf of Jones-Nelson, saying the instruction erroneously suggested the jury evaluate the use of deadly force retrospectively “to determine whether deadly force was in fact objectively necessary, rather than ... whether the defendant’s use of deadly force was reasonable under the circumstances known to the defendant at the time.”

An appeals court agreed the jury instruction was erroneous but concluded that the error was harmless and upheld the conviction.

The Supreme Court agreed the language was wrong but found the defects with the wording were not harmless and were compounded by Fayette’s statements.

At the close of the trial, Fayette told jurors they needed to gauge Jones-Nelson’s actions based on “the level of violence that you would approve of. This is not what the law requires,” the opinion states. “The prosecutor’s argument also compounded the erroneous instruction that ‘all-out’ deadly force is not authorized even if deadly force is.”

Bolger, in his dissent, wrote that the “vital question” at the center of the opinion is “whether a person who uses deadly force in self-defense is authorized to kill his attacker when killing is not reasonably necessary.”

The chief justice, who is now retired, disagreed with what he considered the court’s opinion concluding such force may be justified even if unnecessary.

Alaska’s self-defense statutes limit the use of force “‘to the extent’ the defendant reasonably believes it is necessary,” Bolger wrote. “This language prevents a defendant from using excessive force in a variety of circumstances when the use of lesser force may be justified.”

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.

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