The Nevada Supreme Court ruling this week on a Carson City case may seem to have turned on an exceedingly fine point of the law, but when the charge is first-degree murder there is no such thing as a small matter.
The case involves the killing four years ago of Sammy Resendiz in a Carson City motel room. There are many controversial and disquieting aspects to be resolved at trial -- not the least of which is the fact there are 10 people charged with one murder -- but nothing could proceed until the Supreme Court ruled on the first-degree murder charge.
It took the court a long time to decide, because this is a potentially precedent-setting opinion for Nevada on the most serious of criminal complaints.
The justices didn't rush, and they got it right.
The issue boils down to this:
District Attorney Noel Waters charged the defendants with first-degree felony murder. Under Nevada law (and in many states), commission of homicide during the act of committing another felony such as burglary makes it a first-degree murder.
The key, for both prosecutors and defense attorneys, is that the felony murder charge would not require prosecutors to prove premeditation or intent -- usually a tricky element of trying to get inside the defendants' minds.
Former District Judge Michael Fondi had ruled in favor of defense attorneys and against Waters when he threw out the first-degree charges. The trials would have proceeded on second-degree murder.
The argument upheld by Fondi was that the law tends to "merge" two crimes -- burglary and murder -- committed for the same reason. If prosecutors don't have to prove premeditation and deliberation, then virtually every homicide becomes a felony murder.
While there's much rationale for such reasoning, the Nevada Legislature specifically saw burglary as a crime that can escalate into a homicide and specifically included it under the felony-murder statute.
The Supreme Court saw just as much rationale for such a law -- in fact, an overriding reason in that it would help protect people in their own homes -- and little basis for overturning the Legislature's determination. The justices reinstated the first-degree murder charges.
As we said, it is no small matter of Nevada law. Nevertheless, the truly important issue is whether 10 defendants are guilty or innocent. With the ruling, the case finally can move on.
May justice prevail.