The Nevada Attorney General’s office has filed a motion asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the murder conviction of Peter Quinn Elvik.
Elvik was convicted of murdering William Gibson, 63, at the Carson City gun range in August 1995. He was 14 at the time.
The Nevada Supreme Court upheld the conviction and life sentence but a three-judge panel led by U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro ruled last year the Carson District Judge Mike Griffin should have instructed the jury defendants aged 14 and younger are presumed not to understand their actions are wrong. She said without that instruction, it was much easier for jurors to convict Elvik, who was just shy of his 15th birthday at the time. Navarro ordered a new trial for Elvik, now 35.
That ruling was recently upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in an order refusing to rehear the case.
So Solicitor General Lawrence VanDyke this month petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a Write of Certiorari seeking to reverse that ruling and reinstate the two life sentences and two robbery sentences imposed 20 years ago.
Conceding the high court doesn’t often grant those writs, VanDyke said in this case, he believes there’s a strong argument to reinstate the penalty.
The petition prepared by VanDyke and Jeffrey Conner argues under a recent opinion issued by the Supreme Court, federal courts can’t interfere with state court judgments in criminal proceedings “unless a habeas petitioner can establish that the state court made an error so obvious that the state court’s decision is contradicted by (the Supreme Court’s) clear, unequivocal holdings.”
The petition argues there’s no such error in this case because Elvik’s lawyers deliberately avoided presenting evidence on his state of mind because there was ample evidence the state could present to the contrary. Only at the end of the trial did they argue for the instruction jurors must presume Elvik didn’t understand his actions — without presenting any evidence to back up that argument.
The petition also says the fact Elvik claimed to have acted in self defense because of fear Gibson was going to shoot him was a clear indication the teen was well aware of right and wrong when he committed the murder.
That said, it argues not giving that instruction to jurors was “harmless error.”
The petition by VanDyke and Conner says the Nevada Supreme Court reviewed the case in detail and concluded that not presenting the instruction was, indeed, harmless error. That ruling, the petition says, must be given deference in reviewing any appeal of the conviction.
The petition points out the Navarro ruling wasn’t unanimous. One of the three judges on the panel, John Kronstadt, weighed the record of evidence and concluded Elvik “had a level of sophistication and understanding that would cause any reasonable jury to conclude that, when he shot and killed the victim Elvik knew the difference between right and wrong.”
Elvik’s lawyer, public defender Lori Teicher, however, said there’s no way to conclude the error is harmless because there’s no way to determine how the jury would have reacted to the instruction.
Elvik was this past year paroled from the first of his sentences — the murder count. He’s now serving life with possible parole for use of a deadly weapon.
VanDyke said the high court could do one of three things: reject the petition, set a hearing on the issue or summarily reverse the 9th Circuit Court ruling in the case.
If the order for a new trial stands, it’s up to Carson City District Attorney Jason Woodbury to decide whether there’s sufficient remaining evidence to order a new trial.
In 1996, Elvik was convicted by a Carson City jury for killing Gibson along with stealing his guns, wallet and car. Elvik was on the run for two days before he was tracked down Sept. 1 in his hometown of Tustin, Calif.