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State v. Dahlin

May 12, 2005



The trial court erred in giving only a first-degree premeditated murder instruction when the defendant requested an instruction for the lesser-included offense of second-degree intentional murder and a rational basis existed in the evidence to acquit of the greater offense and convict of the lesser.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Blatz, Chief Justice.

Took no part, Anderson, G. Barry, J.

Reversed and remanded.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.


Following a jury trial, appellant Michael James Dahlin was convicted of aiding and abetting the first-degree premeditated murder of Dustin Jirasek under Minn. Stat. §§ 609.185(a)(1), 609.05 (2004). Prior to the sentencing hearing, Dahlin filed a motion to vacate his conviction pursuant to Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.04 on the basis that the trial court erred in instructing the jury only on first-degree premeditated murder despite Dahlin's request at trial that the jury receive instruction on the lesser charge of second-degree intentional murder. The trial court denied this motion and sentenced Dahlin to life in prison.

On appeal, Dahlin claims he is entitled to a new trial because the trial court committed reversible error by refusing to include jury instructions for the lesser-included offenses of second-degree intentional murder and second-degree unintentional felony murder. Dahlin further claims that he was deprived of his right to a fair trial by the prosecutor's misconduct during the trial and by the improper peremptory strike of a minority member of the venire panel. Because we hold that the trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on second-degree intentional murder, we reverse and remand for a new trial.

Dustin Jirasek was killed by a single shotgun round fired at close range when he opened the door to his home on December 16, 2000. A month later, appellant Michael Dahlin and his friend Mark Staats were indicted for aiding and abetting the first-degree premeditated murder of Jirasek.

Dahlin's girlfriend, Sarah Troska, worked with Jirasek. Troska introduced Dahlin to Jirasek in the fall of 2000, and Troska encouraged Dahlin to audition for a place in Jirasek's band. However, Jirasek did not offer Dahlin a band position, telling Troska that the other band members were offended by the nature of the tattoo on Dahlin's arm. When Troska relayed this news to Dahlin, who was a self-described methamphetamine addict, he became visibly angry and telephoned Jirasek in a rage. Unsettled by this call, Jirasek later called Dahlin back and smoothed things over.

In the following months, Dahlin became suspicious that Troska and Jirasek were having an affair. In October 2000, Dahlin drove his truck to Jirasek's home to confront Jirasek about his suspicions. Although Dahlin's shotgun was in his truck, Dahlin did not take the gun along when he walked to Jirasek's door to speak with him. Two days later, an "urgent care center" notified Jirasek and his wife that it had received a telephone call saying that someone at the Jirasek home would soon need the center's services.

After Dahlin's visit and the call from the urgent care center, Jirasek quit his job so that he could end all contact with Troska and Dahlin. Jirasek later accepted his employer's offer of a shift-transfer, which allowed Jirasek to return to work without seeing Troska. Jirasek last worked with Troska in October 2000, and the two never saw each other again. Nonetheless, Dahlin's suspicions persisted.

In the months before the shooting, Dahlin told a number of people that he wanted to hurt Jirasek. Close friends of Dahlin testified that Dahlin had said he wanted to "kick [Jirasek's] butt," and that he had asked for help to "kick [Jirasek's] ass." On December 15, 2000, Dahlin became angry at Jirasek because Troska told him that months earlier Jirasek had made an insulting comment about Dahlin's male anatomy. Dahlin testified that Troska also told him she had slept with Jirasek, but Troska testified that she had neither had an affair with Jirasek nor told Dahlin that she had. The day before Jirasek was shot, Dahlin told Troska he was going to "kill [Jirasek]." Troska did not believe Dahlin was serious, because threatening to kill people was "a normal part of his ranting and raving."

The next day, Dahlin, armed with his shotgun and a recently purchased semi-automatic handgun, went to Jirasek's house accompanied by his friend, Staats. En route, the two men stopped at a K-Mart to buy ski masks, shotgun ammunition, and a container of gasoline.

Staats did not testify at Dahlin's trial, but during the investigation Staats made a number of statements to the police that were admitted into evidence. In these statements, Staats told the police that he thought Dahlin wanted to "beat up" Jirasek, and that Dahlin never told Staats he planned to shoot Jirasek. According to Staats, after the two men arrived at Jirasek's home, they walked to Jirasek's door together. Dahlin was carrying his shotgun, and Staats was unarmed. Dahlin either knocked or rang the doorbell, and when Jirasek opened the door about five to ten seconds of silence passed before Dahlin fired one shot at Jirasek. While Staats' statements regarding Dahlin's actions were consistent, Staats' explanation of where he was during the shooting changed during the course of the investigation. Initially he stated that he was in Dahlin's truck when Dahlin shot Jirasek, but in subsequent interviews he said that he went to Jirasek's door with Dahlin and was standing off to the side when Dahlin fired the shotgun.

Dahlin's testimony contradicted many of Staats' statements to the police. Dahlin testified that he went to Jirasek's house the night of the shooting to "talk," and that he planned on "intimidating" Jirasek but never intended to hurt him. After arriving at Jirasek's, Dahlin testified that Staats went to the door alone with the shotgun while Dahlin walked around the house, peeking in the basement windows. Dahlin claimed that he left the handgun in the truck, and thus was unarmed. Dahlin testified that while he was walking to the front of Jirasek's house, Staats unexpectedly fired the shotgun into the doorway. Dahlin stated he did not know why Staats shot Jirasek, but speculated that perhaps Staats was afraid of Jirasek's dog. There were no other eyewitnesses to the shooting, but Jirasek's wife was in the next room and heard the shot. According to Dahlin, the two men then ran to Dahlin's truck and drove away, disposing of the guns on a country road.

At trial, Dahlin stipulated that DNA testing on pants the police seized from his bedroom revealed the presence of small spots of Jirasek's blood. Dahlin also stipulated that his DNA and Jirasek's blood were found through DNA testing on a pair of gloves seized by the police from Dahlin's vehicle two days after the shooting. Staats' DNA was not found on the gloves. Despite these stipulations, Dahlin testified that he had no idea why Jirasek's blood was on his pants, and that he had never seen the gloves until after being arrested.

Before closing arguments, the trial court held a jury instruction conference with counsel. Dahlin's counsel orally requested a second-degree unintentional felony murder instruction, with assault as the underlying felony. The court refused this request, stating that felony murder was not a lesser-included offense of first-degree premeditated murder. After the noon recess, defense counsel brought State v. Leinweber, 303 Minn. 414, 228 N.W.2d 120 (1975), to the court's attention, and asserted that second-degree intentional murder "is a mandatory instruction based on this case," thus requesting a second-degree intentional murder instruction in addition to the previously requested second-degree unintentional felony murder instruction. The court read Leinweber during a brief recess, then discussed the case at length with counsel before concluding that a second-degree intentional murder instruction was not required because there was "no evidence affirmatively presented by the Defendant or brought out in cross-examination [to test] the prosecution's case that would throw premeditation in doubt." The court also reaffirmed that it would not instruct on unintentional felony murder because it did not believe it was a lesser-included offense of first-degree premeditated murder.

Later, while deliberating, the jury sought clarification regarding the meanings of "intent" and "premeditation." In response, the trial court read the definitions of each term given to the jury during instructions, adding that the jury should "give the words their plain meaning." After deliberating for one day, the jury convicted Dahlin of first-degree premeditated murder, the only crime for which it received instruction.

Dahlin subsequently filed a motion to vacate his conviction and requested a new trial on the ground that the trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on second-degree intentional murder.*fn1 The trial court denied this motion, stating that "any rational view of the evidence would either lead to the conclusion that the defendant had nothing to do with the killing or that it was premeditated murder," and explained that "[t]he evidence of premeditation is so strong and really ...

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