Murder or self-defense? Jury returns verdict in shooting of 22-year-old on Boise Bench

On the night a Boise man was shot at a Vista neighborhood house, Jed Earls showed off the gun he had tucked into his waistband and worried that he would “do something stupid” with it, according to a friend’s testimony at his recently concluded trial.

Earls did do something with that gun. He pointed it at the chest of 22-year-old James “Matt” Cuellar and pulled the trigger. The defense said it was “the first time he’d ever hit his target.”

The jury in Earls’ murder trial had to decide over the course of a 12-day proceeding whether that gun was fired by an overly intoxicated antagonist or a scared man in self-defense. It returned a guilty verdict Thursday afternoon, finding Earls culpable for second-degree murder and an enhancement for using a deadly weapon to commit a felony.

James “Matt” Cuellar, died early Friday at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center after he was shot Jan. 15 in Vista.
James “Matt” Cuellar, died early Friday at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center after he was shot Jan. 15 in Vista.

Earls’ sentencing is scheduled for July 29, and he could receive up to life in prison for what prosecutors said was a case of bullying run amok.

Boise police arrested Earls after responding to a 4:10 a.m. call on Jan. 15, 2022, in the 2100 block of South Owyhee Street. The jury learned during trial that Cuellar and several friends went to Earls’ home following a friend’s birthday party at a hotel. Most of them, including Cuellar, had not previously met Earls, according to the prosecution.

Prosecutors said Earls, now 34, “bullied” Cuellar and repeatedly antagonized him throughout the night. Witnesses testified that Earls mocked the appearance and speech impediment of Cuellar, who was born with a rare genetic disorder called Pierre Robin syndrome.

“We think about bullying happening in like elementary and middle school drama, but it goes a lot deeper than that,” Maribel Garcia, Cuellar’s sister, previously told the Idaho Statesman. “We’re talking about two grown men here. People just need to do better.”

Family members testified that Cuellar was used to these types of comments and had adopted a strategy of confronting people with his words. Some testified that Cuellar had “lectured” Earls in response.

Those at the party also testified that Earls kept slapping Cuellar on the butt and shoulder, trying to provoke him. Earls, who was described as heavily intoxicated, was angry at people for drinking his alcohol, and at one point, Cuellar stood up to him after Earls made uncomfortable comments to the only woman in the house, according to testimony.

Tension grew throughout the night, according to the prosecution. When the remaining guests left to pick up food, Cuellar and Earls were left alone at the house together.

Prosecutors and police said they believe the two men got into an argument over a case of beer. Police found a torn box of beer on the floor, with all cans unopened, evidence photos showed. Prosecutors speculated that Cuellar might have tried to take the beer and leave.

The defense denied this version of events.

“Matt did not die over beer,” Earls’ defense attorney said. “The beer was just what precipitated things.”

The defense made the claim that Cuellar became violent after everyone left, and Earls shot him in self-defense.

“I kept telling him to get out of my house,” Earls said in his 911 phone call after the shooting. “He kept pushing and pulling, tried to hit me. I grabbed my gun and just pulled the trigger.”

Prosecutors pointed out that many people testified that Cuellar was not a violent person. His grandmother said he was not strong and had been looking for a job that was not labor intensive because he couldn’t physically handle that kind of work.

The prosecution also told the jury that to be found innocent for acting in self-defense, the defense would have to prove that a “reasonable, sober person” would have believed they were in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm.

A person is not allowed to use excessive or unreasonable force, even in a scary situation, according to the prosecution.

“You don’t take a gun to a fistfight,” the prosecuting attorney said during closing arguments.

The jury found Earls guilty after seven hours of deliberation. He was charged with second-degree murder rather than first because the crime was committed in the heat of the moment and not premeditated, according to the prosecution.

“Thank you to the jury for their time and attentiveness during this trial,” said Ada County Prosecutor Jan Bennetts said in a news release.