‘Pattern of abuse’ debate leads to new MN murder trial

A split Minnesota Supreme Court today threw out a first-degree-murder conviction of a Silver Lake man who was imprisoned for killing his girlfriend in Glencoe after a day of drinking.

David Bustos was convicted in the 2012 killing of Domingo Limon while she was getting ready for work. He acknowledged drinking 18 beers before going to her apartment. He believed she was going to meet a new boyfriend, according to court records.

After leaving the apartment, Bustos walked up and down the street in front of the apartment, yelling that he was part of a gang and that he was not afraid of the police.

When Limon’s daughter returned to the apartment, Limon was lying on the floor, surrounded by blood. The police arrived shortly after the emergency call and observed Bustos running in the street near the apartment. Bustos first ran toward the police; then he stopped and ran in the opposite direction.

The police reached Bustos and handcuffed him. One arresting officer testified that Bustos smelled “very heavily of alcohol.” The other arresting officer testified that Bustos’s speech was very slurred and his balance was staggered. The officers took Bustos into custody.

Ms. Limon had been stabbed to death.

At Bustos’ trial, McLeod County attorney Mike Junge introduced evidence of seven incidents of domestic abuse by Bustos against four different people, including a 911 call from a woman riding in his car.

Prosecutors also alleged five incidents of alleged domestic abuse committed by Bustos against his daughters and estranged wife.

Bustos’s daughter testified that in 2006 her father became very angry with her when she told him that she was pregnant; during the ride home, Bustos repeatedly hit a window with a box cutter in a manner that frightened her, and when they arrived home, Bustos pushed her into the house.

When Bustos’s other daughter called the police, Bustos raised his fist as if he was going to strike her. The final incident occurred at a family gathering in 2010. Bustos grabbed a banana and threw it at his estranged wife. She told him to leave her alone and threw it back at him.

Bustos became angry and grabbed her by the neck. She testified that she was scared because everyone else was scared. Bustos’s daughter testified that Bustos was holding a knife by his side during the incident.

The jury convicted Bustos of first-degree murder while committing domestic assault, a charge that requires a past pattern of domestic abuse.

But the Supreme Court said a district court judge ruled incorrectly that Bustos’ attorney couldn’t argue that the state didn’t prove past abuse beyond a reasonable doubt.

It also agreed that the judge improperly defined domestic abuse to include “a family argument.”

“Because the definition of domestic abuse in Minn. Stat. § 609.185(e) includes only the enumerated Minnesota crimes and “similar” federal crimes or crimes committed in other states, the definition of domestic abuse given in the jury instruction encompasses a substantially larger range of conduct than the actual statutory definition of domestic abuse,” Justice G. Barry Anderson wrote for the majority in today’s opinion (pdf).

In her dissent, however, Justice Wilhelmina Wright disagreed that the jury was led to believe the Minnesota law included “family arguments” in the definition of “domestic assault.”

First, the record does not support a finding that Bustos committed a criminal act that was not an assault or terroristic threat. At trial, the jury heard two different versions of the prior violent incidents.

If the jurors believed the State’s version, Bustos committed criminal acts that were either assaults or terroristic threats. If the jurors believed Bustos’s version of events, the incidents were merely family arguments.

Thus, despite Bustos’s assertion to the contrary, the jury could not have found that he committed a criminal act that was something other than an assault or a terroristic threat because a “mere family argument” is not a crime under any Minnesota statute.

“From the evidence presented,” Wright said, “no reasonable jury could conclude that Bustos’s actions did not constitute a terroristic threat or domestic assault when Bustos grabbed his estranged wife around the neck while
holding a knife in a manner that caused “everyone else” to be scared. Nor could a reasonable jury determine—after hearing the recorded threat to Limon that he would “put [her] down”—that he did not commit a terroristic threat.”

Wright said Bustos was entitled to a fair trial, not a perfect one.

Chief Justice Lori Gildea and Justice Christopher Dietzen joined Wright in the dissent.