Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Covington: 404(b) admissible in murder for hire

In U.S. v. Covington, No. 08-10513 (April 22, 2009), the Court affirmed the convictions and sentence of a defendant charged with having hired a murderer to kill a girlfriend.
Covington was arrested and charged with assaulting his girlfriend. He allegedly hired a hitman to murder his girlfriend to avoid having her testify against him.
The Court found no abuse of discretion under FRE 404(b) and 403 in the admission of communications Covington had from jail with his ex-girlfriend, of a description of his prior assault, and of the gun he used in the prior assault. The Court recognized that prior domestic abuse evidence can be irrelevant and prejudicial in a narcotics prosecution. Here, however, this evidence was relevant to Covington’s motive to hire someone to kill his girlfriend. The motive was to silence the girlfriend.
The Court found a sufficient interstate nexus in Covington’s use the telephones because he called across state line to discuss the scheme. The FBI did not contrive to create an interstate nexus.
The Court further found an adequate agreement of payment for murder where Covington wired $300 that eventually reached his intended hit man. In addition, negotiations mentioned payment of six kilos of cocaine.
The Court affirmed the 40-year sentence. The Court rejected the argument that a prior conviction was constitutionally invalid and therefore should not have been counted at sentencing. The Court noted that Custis v. U.S. precluded the kind of challenge Covington raised. In addition, his guilty plea to a firearm in possession count amounted to an express admission that § 924(e) applied to him.
The Court rejected an improper "grouping" challenge. The Court noted that the two murder for hire counts should not have been grouped with the felon in possession of a firearm count, because the two offenses involved a different victim. The girlfriend was the victim of the two murder for hire offenses, while "society as a whole" is considered the victim of a felon in possession offense. Moreover, the motives were different. The murder for hire scheme intended to keep the girlfriend from testifying; Covington did not yet want her dead at the time of his pistol-waving assault. Finally, the Court found it reasonable for the sentencing court to run Covington’s sentences consecutively, and to impose the resulting 420-month sentence.