Guilty verdicts overturned for man convicted of 2014 murder

November 23, 2019 GMT

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Two of three guilty verdicts were reversed for a man convicted of murder because the judge who presided over the trial failed to give the jury proper instructions before deliberation, an Alaska appeals court said.

Thomas Cottam Jr., 28, was convicted of multiple murder charges after he confessed to the machete killing of 81-year-old raspberry farm owner Steven Garcia of Palmer in 2014, the Anchorage Daily News reported Friday.

According to court documents, a jury convicted the Anchorage man in 2015 of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder and a judge sentenced him the next year to at least 30 years in prison.

The state Court of Appeals overturned two of the convictions Wednesday after discovering the judge instructed the jury in the self-defense but not heat of passion defense, officials said.

Then-23-year-old Cottam crossed paths with Garcia in May 2014 before Garcia offered him a job to work at the farm, authorities said.

Days later, Cottam told investigators that Garcia came after him with a machete and Cottam “blacked out” before regaining consciousness over Garcia’s dead body, authorities said.

The heat of passion defense would apply if evidence shows the defendant committed a homicide while in a heat of passion, that the passion was the result of a serious provocation by the victim, and that they committed the homicide before there was reasonable opportunity for their passion to cool, court officials said.

Cottam’s argument that Garcia first threatened him with the machete constitutes “serious provocation” and the immediacy of the killing after the reported attack indicates it happened “before there was a reasonable opportunity for any passion to cool,” Judge Bethany Spalding Harbison said.

The decision means Cottam is entitled to a new trial if the state wishes to pursue the two murder charges again, officials said. The heat of passion defense does not apply to the third charge, officials said.

As of Friday, Cottam remains incarcerated at Seward’s Spring Creek Correctional Center, the newspaper reported.


Information from: Anchorage Daily News, http://www.adn.com