SANTA FE ― The state Supreme Court has upheld the second-degree murder conviction of an Albuquerque man for a fatal shooting in a dispute over a $30 drug debt, but threw out a first-degree felony murder conviction for the same killing.
Jason Comitz was sentenced to life in prison plus an additional 15 years for the murder and other crimes during the Feb. 1, 2015 shooting at the home of Paul Randy Rael. Rael died, and his son and stepson were wounded. Rael’s wife and a son’s 10-year-daughter were inside the home but unharmed.
In its unanimous ruling, the Court also affirmed Comitz’s convictions on two counts of aggravated battery, two counts of aggravated assault, conspiracy to commit aggravated battery, one count of child abuse and sentencing enhancements for the use of a firearm in the crimes. Several other convictions were vacated.
The shooting occurred several days after Comitz fought with Rael’s stepson at the family home in Albuquerque while attempting to collect $30 that Rael allegedly owed him. Comitz returned to the home with two other men. Rael, his son and stepson came outside. Shots were fired after the two groups exchanged insults and Rael’s son was hit on the head with a pistol handle.
Felony murder is a killing that occurs during the commission of a felony. The crime is considered first-degree murder in New Mexico and is punishable by life in prison. The Court determined that prosecutors failed to prove the felony – shooting at a dwelling – that formed the basis for Comitz’s felony murder conviction.
There was no evidence, the Court said, that when Comitz “fired his pistol he willfully shot at the Raels’ home.”
“Instead, the only reasonable inference from the evidence is that Defendant and his companions specifically and primarily targeted the Raels themselves in the course of a gunfight that took place in front of the dwelling. In other words, the evidence was that the goal of Defendant and his companions was to shoot at the Raels, not at the house,” the Court said in an opinion written by Justice Michael E. Vigil.
Comitz’s convictions for shooting at a dwelling and conspiracy to shoot at a dwelling were overturned for insufficient evidence to prove the offenses.
The Court ordered the case back to the District Court in Bernalillo County for further proceedings, including new sentencing. Comitz had been sentenced to 15 years for the second-degree murder conviction and additional years in prison for other convictions that were affirmed.
Two aggravated battery convictions were set aside because the Court determined they violated constitutional protections against double jeopardy, which bars multiple punishments for the same offense. Two conspiracy convictions were vacated because of double jeopardy violations.
“Applying the totality of circumstances test, we conclude that the evidence at trial established the existence of only one conspiracy,” the Court said. “First, the location and time of the alleged conspiracies were the same, and they overlapped temporally. The direct and circumstantial evidence showed that the agreement to shoot at the Rael family was formed between Defendant and his companions while they were on the way to the Raels’ home or during the verbal exchange that preceded the exchange of gunfire.”