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State v. Custer

Supreme Court of Nebraska

November 13, 2015


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Appeal from the District Court for Cheyenne County: DEREK C. WEIMER, Judge.

James R. Mowbray and Sarah P. Newell, of Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, for appellant.

Douglas J. Peterson, Attorney General, and Melissa R. Vincent for appellee.



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[292 Neb. 91] Miller-Lerman, J.


Jason William Custer appeals his convictions and sentences for first degree murder, use of a firearm to commit a felony, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. We affirm Custer's convictions, and we affirm his sentences as modified.


The charges against Custer arose from an incident in which he shot and killed Adam McCormick outside a residence in Sidney, Nebraska, on November 3, 2012. In the information filed in the district court for Cheyenne County, Custer was originally charged with second degree murder and use of a firearm to commit a felony. The information was amended to upgrade the murder charge to first degree and to add a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Custer was alleged to be a habitual criminal, but the State ultimately chose not to pursue the habitual criminal enhancement.

Custer grew up in Chico, California, where he met and became friends with Billy Fields. In 2012, Custer decided to move to Humboldt, Nebraska, where his son and his son's mother lived. Fields was then living in Sidney with his girlfriend, Amber Davis. Fields invited Custer to stay with him and Davis for a time while he was in the process of moving to Humboldt. Custer arrived in Sidney on October 5. While in Sidney, Custer met various friends of Davis, including McCormick and Syrus Leal.

[292 Neb. 92] After Davis told Custer and Fields they needed to move out of her house, Fields arranged for the two to stay at another friend's apartment. At around this time, in mid-October, McCormick gave Custer $150. Although Custer testified that the money was a loan to help Custer pay his share of rent and utilities at the new apartment, Fields and Leal testified that McCormick gave Custer the money to purchase drugs and that after Custer failed to deliver the drugs, McCormick wanted his money back. Custer testified that he intended to pay McCormick back after he received an unemployment check on October 16, 2012, but that he ended up using the money from the check to pay other expenses. On or around October 20, McCormick came to the apartment where Custer and Fields were staying to collect the money. After Custer told McCormick he would pay him from his next check, Fields, who was upset that McCormick had come to confront Custer, told McCormick that he would pay McCormick by the end of the week. In the following days, McCormick exchanged threatening text messages and telephone calls with Custer and Fields.

On or about October 26, 2012, Custer and Fields attended Halloween parties at some local bars. While they were walking between bars, McCormick confronted them, demanding his money. Fields testified that when McCormick approached them, it looked like McCormick was reaching into his pocket for something, and that Fields thought it was a knife that he knew McCormick carried. Custer and Fields told McCormick they could not repay the $150 at that time, but in order to calm McCormick, Fields paid him $40 for another debt he owed. Fields testified that he later met up with Leal, who told him that the money McCormick gave Custer was actually Leal's and that the money should be repaid to him rather than to McCormick. Custer thought the matter had been resolved by agreeing to pay Leal, but

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McCormick later sent text messages to Custer and Fields suggesting that the matter could be resolved if they both left town.

[292 Neb. 93] A few days later, on November 1, 2012, McCormick sent Fields text messages threatening physical violence if the debt was not repaid soon. The text messages prompted Custer to arrange with McCormick to meet in a park for a fight. Custer and Fields went to the park at the arranged time. McCormick did not show up, but he continued to exchange confrontational text messages and telephone calls with Custer and Fields.

Custer and Fields went to Davis' house that night and told her about the ongoing conflict with McCormick. Other friends of Davis were at her house and heard about the conflict. Evidence at trial showed that the gun that was later used to shoot McCormick belonged to one of Davis' friends, but there was a conflict in the evidence as to how the gun came into Custer's possession. Fields testified that at Davis' house on November 1, 2012, Custer had talked to this friend about obtaining a gun and that after the shooting, Custer told Fields that prior to the shooting, he had kept the gun stashed in a culvert behind the apartment building where they were staying. In contrast, as will be discussed further below, Custer testified that he found the gun in Fields' truck immediately before the shooting and that he had not known before that time that the gun was in the truck.

The next night, November 2, 2012, Davis hosted a gathering at her house. A conflict arose when Davis saw that McCormick had come to her house with Leal. Davis insisted that McCormick leave. Davis sent text messages to Custer and Fields, who were not at Davis' house, letting them know about her confrontation with McCormick. She also let them know that the gathering was relocating to Leal's house, that McCormick would be there, and that although Custer and Fields should not fight McCormick there, they could " be waiting and watching for him." The conflict between Davis and McCormick continued at Leal's home. Throughout the evening, Davis updated Custer and Fields through text messages and telephone calls regarding McCormick's activities and whereabouts. Around 11:20 p.m., Custer responded to one of Davis' updates with a [292 Neb. 94] text message stating that he and Fields were coming over to handle matters with McCormick.

Custer testified that throughout the night of November 2, 2012, he had also been exchanging text messages and telephone calls with McCormick and that although Custer tried to explain to McCormick that Fields was going to repay the money, McCormick continued to threaten him. Around 11:35 p.m., Custer asked McCormick whether they could " FINISH THIS RIGHT NOW ONE ON ONE." McCormick responded in the affirmative about 15 minutes later. In the same timeframe, Custer was exchanging texts with Davis to see whether anyone at Leal's home would have a problem if Custer came there to resolve things with McCormick. Custer testified that in light of mixed messages he received from both Davis and McCormick, he determined it would be better to wait until McCormick left and then come to resolve things with Leal instead of with McCormick.

Shortly after midnight on November 3, 2012, Davis texted Custer saying that McCormick was leaving the gathering at Leal's house. Custer borrowed Fields' truck to drive to Leal's house. Fields did not accompany Custer. When Custer arrived at Leal's house, he saw that McCormick, Leal, and Joshua Wright were standing outside on the lawn. Thereafter, an

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incident ensued in which Custer shot McCormick twice. The testimony at trial presented differing stories regarding the incident; therefore, Custer's testimony regarding the incident will be presented herein after discussion of Leal's and Wright's testimony.

Leal testified that after midnight on November 3, 2012, he, McCormick, and Wright were leaving the house; Wright was going to walk home, and Leal was going to give McCormick a ride home. As they were leaving, a truck pulled up to the house. When Leal saw the truck arrive, he thought it was Fields until he heard Custer call McCormick's name. Custer left the truck idling with the lights on while he got out of the truck and headed straight toward McCormick. Leal did not see [292 Neb. 95] a gun but as soon as McCormick responded to Custer's calling his name, Leal heard a shot and saw McCormick buckle over. Leal heard another shot 1 or 2 seconds after the first shot. Leal went to attend to McCormick; he tried to catch McCormick's fall, but McCormick was already on the ground. Leal looked up and saw that Custer was almost back to the truck. Leal ran toward the truck and punched at Custer through the open window. Leal saw a gun on the seat next to Custer as Custer drove away in the truck. Leal then turned to see McCormick trying to walk around Leal's Jeep, which was parked in the driveway. By the time Leal reached McCormick, he was on the ground again.

Wright testified that he, Leal, and McCormick were standing in front of Leal's house smoking after midnight on November 3, 2012, when a truck pulled up and stopped in the street. Wright did not recognize the truck, but one of the other men said it belonged to Fields. Wright started to walk toward the truck because he knew about the tension between McCormick and Fields and he wanted to tell Fields to " chill out." The truck was still running with its lights on. A man got out of the truck, and Wright realized that it was not Fields and that, instead, it was Custer. Custer walked toward the front door of the house. At first Wright did not see anything in Custer's hands, but when Custer picked up his hands, Wright saw that he had a black assault rifle. Custer raised the rifle to his shoulder, and Wright moved to escape. Wright heard Custer call for McCormick, and then he heard a shot. Wright did not see where the shot had been fired because he was trying to escape. Wright heard another shot 1 or 2 seconds later, and then he saw Custer return to the truck. Wright saw Leal run to the truck and punch Custer before the truck left quickly. After he saw the truck leave, Wright started to run home, but when he heard Leal yell for him, he ran to the driveway where he saw McCormick on the ground. McCormick was unresponsive and bleeding, so Wright called for emergency assistance.

[292 Neb. 96] Other evidence presented by the State indicated that the bullet from the second shot entered McCormick's body under the left arm, continued in a downward trajectory, nicking a rib and perforating McCormick's lower left lung, esophagus, and liver, and exited his right side. McCormick died as a result of the gunshot wounds. In addition, an officer who arrived at the scene shortly after the shooting testified that he searched McCormick's pockets and that he found a pocketknife inside McCormick's front left pants pocket. The officer testified that when he found the pocketknife, it was closed up and clasped and was all the way inside the pocket. The officer further testified that he did not find any other weapon in McCormick's proximity.

Custer testified in his own defense at trial. He testified that when he arrived at

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Leal's house, he was confused that McCormick was still there and that he became concerned he was being set up. Custer therefore retrieved a gun that was in the back seat of the truck. Custer testified that he did not know that the gun was there until after he became concerned about a setup and started looking through the truck to find something to protect himself. Custer concealed the gun under his coat as he got out of the truck. As he walked up the driveway, he told McCormick that he was there " to talk so we can settle this." Custer testified that McCormick replied, " yeah, I'm going to settle it," and that then McCormick pulled out a knife and rushed at Custer. Custer testified that he backed up but ran into a Jeep that was parked in the driveway and could not retreat farther. He therefore pulled the gun out and fired a shot aimed at McCormick's knee as McCormick ran at him with the knife raised. McCormick continued toward Custer, despite having been shot in the thigh. As McCormick lunged at Custer with the knife, Custer jumped out of the way, raised the gun, and fired a shot as he twisted.

Custer testified that Leal began to scream at him and chase him; so he got back to the truck and returned to the apartment where he had been staying. He called Fields to tell him that [292 Neb. 97] he had shot at McCormick, and Fields made arrangements for Davis to pick up Custer and get him out of town. Custer stayed at a motel in Big Springs, Nebraska, until some hours later when police came to arrest him based on a tip from Fields and Davis.

During the State's cross-examination of Custer, it asked questions which pointed out that shortly after the shooting, Leal and Wright gave statements to police consistent with their testimony at trial, while Custer " had 15 months" and " the opportunity to sit through all of the trial and listen to all of the testimony" before he testified to his version of events. The State also asked questions which pointed out that after the shooting, Custer had made no attempt to report to the police the shooting or McCormick's alleged aggressive actions. Custer did not object to any of these questions.

Argument at the jury instruction conference shows that Custer requested a " choice of evils" instruction with respect to the charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm. He argued that the instruction was appropriate because of his testimony that he grabbed the gun he found in the back seat of the truck only because he was concerned that he was being set up when he arrived at Leal's house and that he needed to protect himself. The court refused such an instruction after determining that such an instruction was not appropriate under the facts of this case. Custer also objected to an instruction defining premeditation because the instruction included a statement to the effect that the " time needed for premeditation may be so short as to be instantaneous," which statement was not included in the statutory definition of premeditation. The court overruled Custer's objection and gave the instruction. The court also gave a self-defense instruction.

During closing arguments, the State pointed out that Custer had not reported to police McCormick's alleged aggressive actions with the knife. The State also suggested that Custer had 15 months and knowledge of the testimony and evidence against him before he gave his testimony regarding the [292 Neb. 98] shooting. Custer did not object to the statements ...

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