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Court reverses Utah man's attempted murder conviction

Published August 29, 2013 7:09 pm

Courts • Judges reverse Reginald Campos' attempted murder conviction.
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The Utah State Court of Appeals has reversed a Bluffdale man's attempted murder conviction, potentially giving him a new day in court.

Reginald Campos, 47, was convicted by a 3rd District Court jury of shooting fellow neighborhood watch advocate David Serbeck in 2009 because he believed Serbeck and another man were stalking his daughter.

Campos was convicted of first-degree felony attempted murder for shooting Serbeck and leaving him permanently paralyzed. He was later sentenced to up to life in prison.

He also was convicted of third-degree felony aggravated assault for pointing his gun at Serbeck's companion that night.

But Campos' attorney argued before the appeals court in March that his trial lawyers so badly botched his case that the verdict should be thrown out. On Thursday, Campos' appeal won out, for the most part. The court issued a decision to reverse the attempted murder conviction, although it affirmed the conviction for aggravated assault, which cannot exceed a sentence of five years.

"It's not the result that we were hoping for," Assistant Attorney General Mark Field said. "We have 30 days to decide whether we will appeal it. If we don't, it will go back into the district court, and at that point the district attorney will decide whether he wants to retry the case."

The appeals court decided that Campos' attorneys failed to object to an inaccurately worded verdict form — the checklist of charges for the jury to mark as guilty or not guilty — which misplaced the burden of proof on Campos, rather than on the state. The court also wrote that Campos' attorneys failed to object when a prosecutor attacked their character and suggested the jury find Campos guilty out of vengeance or sympathy for Serbeck, rather than based on the facts.

"We are most troubled by the prosecutor's reference to Campos' 'stealing from [Serbeck] his ability to run, his ability to bike, his ability to walk his daughter down the aisle,' " the decision reads. The attorneys' inaction "undermines our confidence that Campos received a fair trial, and absent counsel's errors, there is a reasonable probability of a different result."

John Campos, the defendant's brother, first heard of the decision when The Salt Lake Tribune called him for an interview.

"That's fantastic, especially for them to come back in a timely manner," John Campos said. "We're very happy that the decision has come out."

According to Campos' appeals defense attorney Herschel Bullen, one of most the significant elements of Reginald Campos' appeal is that the burden of proof was "completely turned on its head." Bullen said in arguments in March that Campos wanted to use an "imperfect self-defense" argument because Campos believed he was defending himself even if he was acting "reasonably but incorrectly."

Bullen argued that the jury was given the impression that the burden of proof was on the defense, when the state was actually required to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. The result, Bullen said, was that Campos' trial attorney was ineffective.

Greg Skordas, who co-represented Campos with Rebecca Skordas, who was lead attorney at trial, offered that the court's decision was a well-reasoned one and he "respects the appeals court's ability to go through that."

Campos shot Serbeck on the night of July 22, 2009, after Campos' teenage daughter came home and said she had been followed by an SUV.

Campos — a certified public accountant who had become a neighborhood watch advocate following a recent influx of crime in the area — responded by getting a gun and, with his daughter, venturing out into the neighborhood to find the SUV.

Bullen told the court in March that the girl felt she was being chased. Serbeck — who also had advocated forming a neighborhood watch program — and his companion that night, Troy Peterson, had reportedly followed Campos' daughter because they thought her vehicle was suspicious.

When Campos eventually spotted Serbeck's SUV, he pulled in front, forcing it to stop, and jumped out of his vehicle waving a gun and screaming about someone following his daughter, according to Serbeck's testimony at the trial.

During the ensuing confrontation, Serbeck, who also carried a loaded gun, claimed at trial that he lowered his gun by the barrel, kicked it away and stepped from behind his car door, saying, "Let's talk," before Campos shot Serbeck the chest, paralyzing him.

During the March hearing, Bullen argued that Campos was under extreme emotional distress when he shot Serbeck. Bullen also alleged that prosecutors misled the jury during the trial about whether Serbeck had placed a bullet in the chamber of the gun he carried that night.

Field conceded in March that there was a bullet in the chamber but characterized prosecutors' comments as a misstatement, at most. Field went on to praise Campos' trial attorney, saying she did a "fabulous" job on the case and was not ineffective in any way.

Field had also argued that Campos' hysterical daughter wasn't enough to justify an extreme emotional distress defense.

Serbeck is in prison for an unrelated crime. In March 2012, he was convicted on three counts of unlawful sexual activity with a minor, all third-degree felonies. Last June, a judge ordered him to spend up to 10 years in prison for the crimes.

Prosecutors say Serbeck, 40, groomed a 17-year-old neighbor in the summer of 2007, exploiting her trouble with depression and having sex with her three times in his Magna home.

mmcfall@sltrib.com

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