Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Baker. Murder evidence erroneously admitted but not always prejudicial

In U.S. v. Baker, No. 00-13083 (Dec. 13, 2005), the Court, in a 137-page opinion (Barkett, Marcus, George b.d.), affirmed the drug trafficking ("Boobie Boys") convictions and sentences of some defendants but reversed the convictions of others.
At trial, over defense objection, the government introduced evidence of prior murders, allegedly committed by defendants as members of a drug trafficking enterprise.
The Court noted that the trial court’s admission of a police officer’s testimony that his investigation "revealed" a defendant to have previously committed a murder violated the prohibition against hearsay, as well as Rule 404(b)’s prohibition against character evidence, since the murder was not temporally close to the charged offenses, and revealed no common modus operandi.
The district court also erred in the admission of hearsay evidence that one defendant had previously beat up his girlfriend.
The district court also erred in the admission of a police officer’s testimony that he "received information" about defendant committing murders. "The district court explained that it allowed this testimony because it believed that the statements were relevant not to prove their truth, but rather to explain how [the officer] conducted his investigation. We do not understand this reasoning." The Court pointed out that the only relevance of the hearsay was to show who committed the murders.
The district court also erred in admitting police testimony about what he learned when he arrived at the scene of a shooting. These statements were "unquestionably inadmissible hearsay."
The district court further erred in admitting testimony from a declarant, who later died, identifying his assailants. The statement was hearsay, and was not a dying declaration because it was not made believing death was imminent. Further, its admission violated Rule 404(b) because it involved a murder which was not "inextricably intertwined" with the charged offenses.
The district court also erred in admitting police testimony about what witnesses told him about another murder, and Miami Herald articles identifying the perpetrators. This was inadmissible hearsay. It also violated Rule 404(b) because it involved conduct which occurred "outside the temporal scope of all the charged crimes."
The district court did not err in admitting murder victims’ statements to their parents that they feared being killed by a defendant (they were killed). The statements were "present sense impression" statements, admissible under Rule 803(1), and they did not violate Rule 404(b) because these murders were connected with the modus operandi of the defendants’ drug business.
The district court did not err in admitting statements given to police by a witness to a murder, because defense counsel "invited" the error by cross-examining the police about statements made by the witness, and the non-responsive answer was then elaborated on by the police witness on re-direct. The defendants not represented by this defense counsel could raise a plain error challenge to the testimony, having not elicited the testimony themselves, but having not objected either.
The district court also erred in admitting evidence that one of the defendants was featured on the television show "America’s Most Wanted." This evidence was both inadmissible hearsay and "incredibly" inadmissible under Rule 404(b).
The district court also erred in not allowing the defense to cross-examine a government witness concerning the exculpatory portions of a witness statement. This ruling violated Rule 106, which allows a party to introduce a portion of an exhibit, or testimony, which ought to be considered with the portion introduced by the opposing party.
Reviewing the cumulative effect of the above errors on the trials of each defendant, the Court upheld convictions for the defendants as to whom the evidence of guilt was otherwise overwhelming, and reversed as to defendants for whom the evidence was "weak."
The Court rejected several defendants’ challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, finding it sufficient to sustain their convictions.
Turning to several defendants’ challenge to the denial of their motion for severance, the Court noted that the prosecution’s case involved evidence regarding several murders carried out by one drug trafficking gang against another gang. The Court rejected this challenge, noting that most of the prosecution’s case involved evidence of drug trafficking, not murder, that the murders were linked to the drug trafficking activity, making them relevant to the case, and that most of the defendants were implicated in the murders. The "spillover effect" of the murder evidence was not sufficiently prejudicial to warrant a new trial.
Citing Deck v. Missouri, 125 S.Ct. 2007 (2005), the Court acknowledged that shackling of criminal defendants should "rarely" be used, but found that the defendants who were shackled were not entitled to a new trial. The Court pointed out that bunting draped around defense table prevented the jury from seeing the shackles.
The Court found no error in the district court’s denial of a motion for severance. Given the length of the trial, the trial court had a "legitimate" concern about scheduling the trial. In addition, one defendant had adequate time to "shop" for a new lawyer once it became apparent that his lawyer would not be able to represent him on the date of the scheduled trial.
Turning to sentencing issues, the Court found no error in imposing a sentence enhancement for murder based on hearsay testimony, noting that a sentencing court may consider any relevant information. The Court rejected a number of other challenges to sentences, including a plain error Booker argument, finding no evidence that the judge would have imposed a lesser sentence under an advisory regime.