Steven Radke, convicted of first-degree murder in Crow Wing County, is not eligible for a new trial, the Minnesota Supreme Court recently ruled.
“An appellant will be entitled to a new trial if the errors, considered cumulatively, had the effect of denying him a fair trail,” the supreme court ruled. “Here, having carefully reviewed the record, we are satisfied that Radke’s trail was not unfair.”
Radke admitted shooting and killing his father-in-law Darrell Buesgens.
During the closing arguments of the trial, Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan said Radke and his wife at the time, Melanie Buesgens, had a rocky relationship and that she often left her husband to stay with her parents. In a June 20, 2007, phone call before Darrell Buesgens’ murder, Melanie Buesgens told Radke that she wanted a divorce. Then, Ryan said Radke snuck a .308-caliber rifle out of his bedroom window, got on his four-wheeler and drove it to Buesgens’ property. Once there, Radke hid the four-wheeler, walked through the woods and took a hidden position outside of Darrell Buesgens’ home.
Ryan said Radke fired a warning shot and when Darrell Buesgens came out of his house to investigate, Radke shot him twice.
At the trial, there wasn’t a dispute that Radke shot Darrell Buesgens, but there were different arguments about what led up to the shooting and whether it was premeditated or in self-defense.
On Feb. 12, 2009, a jury rejected Radke’s claims of self-defense and found him guilty of first-degree premeditated murder. The district court sentenced Radke to life in prison without the possibility of release.
In court documents, Radke argued even if his individual claims did not require a reversal of his conviction, the cumulative effect of the errors did.
Radke filed for postconviction relief arguing his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to introduce evidence of Darrell Buesgens’ reputation for violence and past acts of violence.
Radke also claimed the state committed a reversible error when it withheld evidence of two police reports related to Darrell Buesgens’ past acts of violence. One report was a 1993 incident where Darrell Buesgens’ wife reported a domestic incident involving weapons. A second incident in 1994 involved a report of Darrell Buesgens “throwing furniture around” and threatening to take his wife hostage. The court found a report of the incidents was provided in disclosures to the defense but the case specific reports were not turned over. However, the supreme court ruled if the evidence had been disclosed it would have had no effect on the trial outcome.
“The specific past acts of violence the State failed to disclose were not admissible to show Buesgens was the aggressor,” the supreme court reported. “While past acts of the victim may be admissible in a self-defense case to show the defendant’s reasonable fear of serious bodily harm, they are only admissible if the defendant knew of those past acts.”
Radke didn’t claim he knew of those incidents or that his fear was based on them, the court reported.
Radke also said jury instructions shifted the burden to him to prove self-defence. Radke claimed the district court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on “heat-of-passion manslaughter” and the state improperly used a suppressed statement he made along with committing misconduct during closing arguments.
The supreme court stated Radke failed to show any error occurred in jury instructions. And the court ruled Radke continued to evaluate and think through his actions throughout the incident, leading the court to conclude there was no basis for the jury to find he acted in the heat of passion.
As for the suppressed statement, the court agreed with Radke “in at least some portions of its closing argument, the state went beyond the purpose of impeachment and invited the jury to use Radke’s suppressed statement as substantive evidence of guilt.
“We conclude, however, that the state has met its burden of showing that the error did not affect Radke’s substantial rights. As we have discussed, the State clearly met its burden of disproving Radke’s claim of self-defense, and in light of the other evidence in this case, we see no reasonable likelihood that the State’s misconduct had a significant effect on the jury’s verdict.”
“Radke raises two additional claims of prosecutorial misconduct,” the supreme court stated. “First, Radke argues that the State misstated the law with respect to the revival of an aggressor’s right. We reach this conclusion despite our recognition that the trial court’s instructions erroneously suggested that substantive consideration of the suppressed statement by the jury was proper.
“In short, even assuming that the jury considered the statement to be substantive evidence, we believe the importance of the statement was limited in comparison to the state’s other evidence and arguments, and that it simply is not likely to have had a significant impact on the jury’s verdict.
Radke also contended the state improperly “inflamed the passions and prejudices of the jurors by calling Radke an ‘enraged predator’ and comparing him to Rambo.” The supreme court found neither claim satisfied the standard for plain error.
“While colorful, we view the state’s language as a reasonable and descriptive way to convey the state’s version of what happened in this case, and it was not outside the bounds of what is permissible,” the supreme court reported.
The supreme court concluded each of Radke’s claims to be either without merit or that they didn’t result in prejudice to Radke and thus it affirmed both Radke’s conviction and the postconviction court’s denial of postconviction relief.
At trail Radke claimed he went to the home at his wife’s request to help her move back to their marital home. Radke said he was afraid of his father-in-law because he was bigger and stronger and experienced with firearms and had previously threatened him to leave his daughter alone or that Radke “would be sorry.”
Radke said he took a loaded rifle with him to his father-in-laws home because he was scared and loaded it although he didn’t intend to use it because an unloaded weapon “wouldn’t do (him) much good.”
The supreme court noted Melanie Buesgens’ version of the events of that day were starkly different than Radke’s and said she never asked him to come to help her move back to their home. The medical examiner found Darrell Buesgens died as a result of two high-velocity gunshot wounds.
Radke argued evidence that his father-in-law had a reputation for violence was crucial to his claim of self-defense, and that, had it been admitted, the result of the trial likely would have been different.
“At trial, it was undisputed that Radke shot and killed (Darrell) Buesgens,” the supreme court ruled. “And assuming Radke’s version of events to be true, there is ample evidence that the killing was premeditated and not in self-defense.
“Radke went to Buesgens’ house with a loaded rifle with a bullet cycled into the chamber; he cycled a new bullet into the chamber after the rifle accidentally discharged; he made no effort to flee the scene or otherwise retreat either before or after the rifle accidentally discharged; after firing the first shot that struck Buesgens, Radke took aim through the scope of his rifle, paused and warned Buesgens before shooting him a second time.”
“As noted, a valid claim of self-defense requires the absence of aggression or provocation by the defendant. Radke argues that in this case it was Buesgens, not him, who was the aggressor. According to Radke, Buesgens became the aggressor when Buesgens showed up at the top of the hill with a shotgun one to two minutes after Radke’s rifle accidently discharged.
“At oral argument, counsel for Radke conceded, as he had to, that up to that point Radke’s conduct made Radke the aggressor. To conclude on these facts that Buesgens was the aggressor would require us to first conclude that Buesgens, who was lawfully on his own property when a high-powered rifle was discharged less than 50 feet away, acted unreasonably in defense of himself, his daughter, and his grandchildren who were present at his house.
“It would also require us to ignore the fact that before Buesgens was shot the first time, Buesgens had done nothing more than retrieve a shotgun and go to the area where the rifle shot came from to try to ascertain what was going on. To the extent that, as Radke claims, Buesgens sought to bring the shotgun around to ‘draw down’ on Radke after Buesgens had been shot the first time, Buesgens presumably was attempting to defend himself from exactly what took place next: being shot a second time. Thus, on the record before us, we can only conclude that Buesgens was not the aggressor, nor did he provoke the circumstances leading up to his being shot.
“Moreover, Radke’s own testimony leads inescapably to the conclusion that Radke was the aggressor who provoked the events leading to Buesgens’ death.”
The supreme court reported no matter how persuasive the evidence might be in question of Radke’s fear and whether it was reasonable or his actions were reasonable, his claim of self-defense would still fail and his trial result would not have been different even if that evidence had been introduced.
Because Radke could not show the trial outcome would have been different, the court ruled his ineffective assistance of counsel claim also failed.