Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Friday, October 16, 2009

Chavez: Simultaneous Bench and Jury Trials Ok

In U.S. v. Chavez, No. 08-12638 (Oct. 16, 2009), the Court affirmed drug trafficking convictions and sentences.
Several defendants were indicted in the case. One pled not guilty. Four pled guilty but reserved the right to have a bench trial requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt as to the drug quantities. The five went to trial together. The trial court did not disclose to the jury that some defendants had pled guilty; the verdict form ultimately only sought a verdict as to one defendant.
The Court rejected this defendant’s argument that his motion for a severance should have been granted. While acknowledging the novelty of simultaneous jury and bench trials, and declining to endorse the technique, the Court found no prejudice.
The Court rejected the argument that a mistrial should have been granted when a government witness, in response to a question on cross-examination, answered: "The only way to know [the answer] is through the Defendant." The Court found that curative instructions cured the error, which was all but invited by defense counsel’s question.
The Court also rejected a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, noting the abundant circumstantial evidence, and other evidence.
Turning to sentencing, the Court rejected a challenge to the reasonableness of Chavez’ life sentence. The Court noted that the sentence was consistent with the Guidelines.
The Court rejected another defendant’s sentencing challenge. The Court noted that the sentence was based on cash found at the defendant’s residence, which the sentencing court converted to methamphetamine quantities. The Court found the inference that the cash came from drug trafficking to be reasonable.