Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Trial Issues and Sentencing Win

In United States v. Guthrie, Nos. 07–6215/6286 (6th Cir. Mar. 2, 2009), the panel of Judges Martin, Moore, and Gwin (N.D. Ohio) considered a number of trial issues presented by the defendant and a sentencing challenge by the government. A jury convicted the defendant of car-jacking, discharging a firearm during a crime of violence, possessing a sawed-off shotgun, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. The court sentenced the defendant to 300 months of incarceration total. This sentence accounted for the mandatory minimum sentences at play.

The defendant challenged several aspects of the trial proceedings: 1) The AUSA being able to speak with the victim-witness during her cross-examination; 2) introduction of audio recordings of 911 calls; 3) introduction of video of a police pursuit; 4) the trial court’s refusal to issue a writ to produce a witness at trial; 5) the court’s instruction on "intent to cause death or serious bodily injury;" and 6) the denial of his motions for a judgment of acquittal based on the insufficiency of the evidence.

The government challenged the sentence, which included a variance from the guideline range. The government argued that the sentencing court varied because of the impact of the statutory mandatory minimums on the overall sentence and that the court did not adequately explain the grounds for the sentence.

The panel affirmed the conviction and sentence.

I will focus on two issues here: the witness-sequestration issue and the sentencing issue. The sequestration issue is interesting for a number of reasons. In our office in the Western District of Michigan, we recently brought a similar challenge because of conduct during a trial. This Guthrie decision does recognize the viability of such challenges. The Guthrie defendant characterized the error he raised as a failure to sequester the witness and as a violation of his Sixth Amendment right to confront his accuser. In rejecting the challenge, the panel pointed out that the district court merely had called a routine recess at the end of the day and that the defense did not object to the handling of the situation as the decision was made—the defense only objected as the witness was being dismissed and asked that the prosecutor not talk to the witness.

The panel concluded that sequestration orders do not prohibit witnesses from speaking with counsel. The panel noted that the defense did not question the witness regarding potentially improper communications when the witness took the stand the following day. Finally, the defense did not, on appeal, allege that anything improper occurred. I think these facts are what decided the issue. Perhaps on different, less benign, facts the situation could have come out differently.

As to sentencing, the government had argued for a 40-year sentence. The guideline recommendation was for 360 months and an additional 10 years because of the 10-year, consecutive minimum for the use of the firearm during a violent crime. The appellate court upheld the 25-year sentence imposed. It found that the district court was not trying to "negate" the mandatory minimum sentence for the use of the firearm during a crime of violence, as is prohibited by United States v. Franklin, 499 F.3d 578 (6th Cir. 2007). The panel found that the sentencing court had concluded that a 40-year sentence was just too long. The panel refused to impute an improper analysis to the district court and concluded the sentence was reasonable.

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