The Arizona Court of Appeals has overturned the murder conviction and life sentence for a Tucson man who claims he became involved in a fatal shooting in 2016 only after fearing for his safety during a drug deal.
Steven Anaya was found guilty by a jury in May 2018 of first-degree murder, attempted murder, and aggravated assault after a shooting on Tucson’s westside left one man dead and another injured in August 2016. He contended a Pima County Superior Court judge erred by refusing to give a jury instruction on the issue of self-defense.
Last month a three-judge appellate panel ordered a new trial, which must start by August 23, unless the Arizona Attorney General’s Office petitions the Arizona Supreme Court for review of the decision. The appeals court left intact Anaya’s conviction and 2.5-year sentence for unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon.
Court records show that on Aug. 18, 2016, Anaya got into a truck driven by someone identified only as F.R. along with an acquaintance named Uriel Alan Galvez. Anaya, now 31, admitted the men were meeting for a planned drug deal and he claims a fourth man got into the truck later on and sat in the backseat with him.
According to Anaya’s testimony, an argument ensued inside the truck between Anaya and Galvez, 30, about an old debt. At some point the unidentified fourth man pointed a gun at him, Anaya testified.
Anaya also testified he eventually took possession of the gun and pointed it at F.R. in an effort to get him to stop the truck. When F.R. wouldn’t pull over, Anaya fired the gun at F.R. and jumped out of the truck.
F.R., who was related to Galvez, was apparently shot twice but survived. It’s unclear when and where F.R. came into contact with police after the shooting but when officers found F.R.’s truck later that day Galvez was dead in the front passenger seat with gunshot wounds to the head and back.
Anaya was arrested several days later. He was in possession of the gun which investigators determined fired the bullets that killed Galvez. He testified at trial that he shot F.R. in self-defense and that Galvez was accidentally killed by the fourth man during a scuffle for the gun.
F.R. testified there was no fourth man in the truck and that Anaya shot Galvez after being confronted about stealing nearly 200 pounds of marijuana several years earlier. No fourth man was ever identified at trial.
Anaya requested a self-defense instruction to the jury as to F.R. and Galvez, but Judge Pro Tempore Howard Fell denied the request. The judge commented in front of the jury about the lack of evidence that Galvez threatened Anaya except by “some words.”
The judge also told jurors that Anaya failed to demonstrate “anything” that allowed a “reasonable person” to believe that he was in fear of being harmed or killed.
However, the court of appeals noted a justification defense may be put forth when “a reasonable person would believe that physical force is immediately necessary to protect himself against the other’s use or attempted use of unlawful physical force.” In addition, deadly force is justified under Arizona state law when “a reasonable person” believes it is immediately necessary to prevent another’s use or attempted use of unlawful deadly force.
The appellate decision found Fell was required to give the jury the requested self-defense instruction as to F.R. and Galvez because Anaya’s claim was supported by “the slightest evidence” of a reasonable belief of potential harm.
“To meet the slightest evidence standard, a defendant does not have to show that a victim in fact assaulted or threatened him because even a mistaken belief can be a reasonable one,” the decision states, noting the evidence must be viewed “in the light most favorable to Anaya.”
The appellate decision also noted Fell inexplicably provided a self-defense instruction to the jury related to the disputed fourth man even though Anaya was never charged with a crime involving him.
“By restricting the self-defense instruction to the unidentified man, the court prohibited the jury from considering Anaya’s apprehension of physical violence from others acting in concert with the gunman,” the decision states, adding “there is evidence from which the jury could find that (Galvan’s) death was the result of the threat that (Galvan) posed to Anaya.”
Anaya was represented on appeal by Abigail Jensen with the Pima County Public Defender while Diane Leigh Hunt argued for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.