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Court may reinstate conviction in deadly Seattle school shooting

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court appeared likely Wednesday to reinstate the murder conviction of the driver in a gang-related drive-by shooting that horrified Seattle in 1994.

At least five justices indicated they are inclined to reverse a federal appeals court that threw out the second-degree murder conviction of Cesar Sarausad II.

He was convicted for his role as the driver in the shooting in which Melissa Fernandes, 16, was killed and Brent Mason, 17, was wounded outside Ballard High School on March 23, 1994.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned the conviction because of unclear jury instructions.

But state courts had previously upheld the conviction, and a 1996 federal law requires federal judges to defer to state court rulings about state law unless they clearly are wrong.

Justice Stephen Breyer said he read the jury instructions and the related state law "probably over a dozen times by now, and I can't find the slightest ambiguity. It seems to be absolutely clear."

Sarausad was a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Washington at the time of the shooting. He drove the car from which Brian Ronquillo, shot and killed 16-year-old Melissa Fernandes. She had nothing to do with the gang rivalry that led to the shooting.

Ronquillo was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 52 years in prison. Sarausad got a 27-year sentence.

Sarausad admitted being the driver but denied knowing that Ronquillo had a gun, much less that he was planning to kill anyone.

The jury instructions at issue concerned whether, in order to be convicted of second-degree murder, Sarausad had to know that Ronquillo intended to use a gun and that someone could die as a result.

The case is Waddington v. Sarausad, 07-772.
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