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Judge dismisses murder case against 17-year-old Utahn, ruling the action was justified

A 3rd District Court judge dismissed a first-degree murder case on Thursday after making a determination that a Millcreek teenager charged with murder was justified in firing a gun in an attempt to stop a fight outside a Salt Lake City club.

A 3rd District Court judge dismissed a first-degree murder case on Thursday after making a determination that a Millcreek teenager charged with murder was justified in firing a gun in an attempt to stop a fight outside a Salt Lake City club. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — A 3rd District Court judge dismissed a first-degree murder case on Thursday after making a determination that a Millcreek teenager charged with murder was justified in firing a gun in an attempt to stop a fight outside a Salt Lake City club.

Alex Ruiz-Martinez, 17, was charged as an adult with murder, a first-degree felony, after he fired a gun — leading to the death of a man who the judge said was likely committing aggravated assault.

Ruiz-Martinez asked for a justification hearing, arguing that using force in this instance was justified in order to protect another person.

Under a state law that took effect in May 2021, a person charged with a crime of unlawful use of force can request a justification hearing in front of a judge up to 28 days before a case goes to trial. The law shifts the decision about whether someone acted in defense of themselves or someone else from a jury to a judge, who might have to rule based on limited pretrial evidence.

If a defendant is able to bring credible evidence he or she acted in defense, prosecutors must prove with "clear and convincing evidence" — a high legal bar — that the person was not justified in the use of force. If prosecutors are not able to meet that burden of proof, the judge must dismiss the charges with prejudice, meaning they cannot be refiled.

A justification hearing for Ruiz-Martinez was held on April 6, and a follow-up hearing for attorneys to make arguments was held on Sept. 7, before the judge's decision was announced on Thursday.

"Believe me, I would much rather have had this issue dealt with by a jury," Judge Barry Lawrence said on Thursday. "But there's a new statute in Utah that requires these issues to come first to the judge, and so I have to make a determination of whether Mr. Ruiz's defense is a valid one or not."

Lawrence said he found the requirements were met to dismiss the case, including that Jaime Dirzo-Portugal, the man who was being hit, was actually in danger of bodily injury and Ruiz-Martinez reasonably believed that his friend was in danger.

"It's a very high burden; the state couldn't meet it. And they couldn't meet it because I don't believe the facts of this case would support that," Lawrence said.

Before making the ruling, Lawrence stressed the fight was "not just any old fistfight," noting that Englandsienna Pauulu, the man who was shot and died, weighed 264 pounds and Dirzo-Portugal weighed only 150 pounds.

Lawrence said that based on the testimony presented at the justification hearing for Ruiz-Martinez, it is undisputed that Pauulu was attacking a man who was smaller than himself and who he had pinned to the ground, and that there was no sign of the attack letting up.

In a written order dismissing the case, Lawrence explained that Pauulu and Dirzo-Portugal bumped shoulders while crossing the street. The judge said witnesses agreed the bump was intentional but it was unclear who initiated it. However, the bump led to a fight.

Lawrence said the case record shows Pauulu threw the first punch, and that he was straddled on top of Dirzo-Portugal's chest, dominating him and punching him at will.

After being shot in the chest, Pauulu died at the scene despite life-saving efforts by first responders.

Lawrence told Ruiz-Martinez that he hopes he learned from the experience and encouraged him not to hang out with older men who are going to bars late at night — especially when someone has a gun.

"I hope that you take this as a cautionary tale and don't get into a situation like this again. Hanging out with 25-year-olds who are going to clubs and having guns is not a good idea for a 17-year-old," Lawrence said.

He said his heart goes out to Pauulu's family and that he understands this is not the ruling they were hoping for.

A member of the family, Pio Pauulu, spoke against the judge's decision and expressed concerns about Ruiz-Martinez being released from jail on Thursday.

Dirzo-Portugal, 23, was also charged with murder, a first-degree felony, after the same incident. He did not show up to court in July 2021 and still has a warrant out for his arrest. Charging documents allege that he had the gun, passed it to Ruiz-Martinez and told him to shoot.

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Emily Ashcraft joined KSL.com as a reporter in 2021. She covers courts and legal affairs, as well as health, faith and religion news.

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