State Supreme Court mulls new appeal in Reno road-rage death
This week, the court started wading back into the nuances and ambiguities in related Nevada laws
RENO, Nev. (AP) - A spontaneous road-rage killing? Or an execution by a “traffic vigilante” determined to rid the streets of a dangerous reckless driver in a typically quite suburban Reno neighborhood?
The commission of a burglary, because a bullet entering an open car window counts as an illegal entry to the vehicle? Or a trumped-up legal theory intended to satisfy alternating theories put forth by prosecutors to improve their chances of securing a murder conviction?
The Nevada Supreme Court heard oral arguments from lawyers on both sides this week while considering an appeal from Washoe County’s district attorney seeking to reinstate a Reno murder conviction the justices overturned last year.
In a 2-1 decision in September, the high court overturned Wayne Cameron’s conviction in the 2020 death of Jarrod Faust after concluding the district judge wrongly determined the fatal gunshot through a truck window constituted a burglary.
This week, the court started wading back into the nuances and ambiguities in related Nevada laws, some dating to the Civil War-era before the Nevada Territory became a state.
“This court has never reviewed what is an entry with regard to this statute,” Richard Cornell, Cameron’s lead defense attorney, told the justices during Tuesday’s oral arguments in Carson City.
In a nod to the complexities, the high court requested friend-of-the-court briefs from the Nevada District Attorneys Association representing DA’s in all 17 counties and its statewide counterpart for public defenders, the Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice.
It was not clear when the court expected to rule.
Alexander Chen, a Clark County prosecutor arguing on behalf of prosecutors, said there are sure to be subsequent appeals regardless of the outcome of the pending challenge.
“No matter what you decide, it’s not over,” he told the court Tuesday.
The justices indicated the lack of clarity in state law may ultimately have to be addressed by the Nevada Legislature.
The incident began in February 2020 when Cameron said he tailed Faust for several minutes after Faust nearly hit a motorcyclist, finally confronting him in a cul-de-sac named Welcome Way.
Police said Cameron shot Faust as he sat, unarmed, in his truck. They said Cameron admitted to a friend minutes later that he shot Faust in a road-rage incident. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Prosecutors had argued it was first-degree murder because Cameron — later characterized as a “traffic vigilante” — acted with premeditation and/or deliberation.
“Mr. Cameron regarded himself as almost a de facto law enforcement officer,” Jennifer Noble, a Washoe County prosecutor, told the justices Tuesday. “He testified he was doing a public service. He shot this man in the head. He did it with malice.”
Prosecutors had argued alternatively that the trial jury could find him guilty because Nevada law dictates that any killing committed during the course of a burglary is murder regardless of whether the perpetrator intended to kill.
They said the bullet that entered Faust’s pickup truck was an unlawful entry satisfying the legal definition of a burglary.
Cameron’s lawyers disagreed and the Supreme Court sided with them in September.
“Burglary at its most basic level requires entry,” Kathryn Hickman, a Washoe County public defender, told the justices Tuesday.
“Nevada law excludes a bullet on its own crossing a threshold,” she said. “The novel legal theory that the prosecution offered, that the bullet itself (satisfies entry), seeks to broaden the legal definitions.”
Defense attorney objected to that prosecution argument during trial, but the judge overruled the objection, which effectively “endorsed it as a legal theory,” Hickman said.
Justice Kristina Pickering wrote in the dissenting opinion in the 2-1 ruling in September that the jury reasonably rendered a verdict regardless of whether Nevada law “forecloses an entry-by-projectile theory of burglary” because there was sufficient evidence to suggest premeditation and deliberation.
She pressed that point when questioning lawyers on Tuesday.
But Justice Abbi Silver wrote in the majority opinion the burglary theory was not legal because Cameron or the gun itself had to cross into the truck to establish burglary.
Hickman reiterated that Tuesday, saying, “We don’t know which legal theory the jury used.”
“We don’t know if some used the bullet itself (as evidence of a burglary), or if some believed it was predetermined. ... It’s impossible to separate,” Hickman said. “That’s the legal error.”
Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.