Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Murder Evidence Not Unduly Prejudicial to Felon-in-Possession Trial

US v. Williams: Williams was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm by a jury. Most of the evidence at trial related to a murder Williams allegedly committed with the firearm in question (it was never recovered). The Fourth Circuit rejected several challenges Williams made to his conviction.

First, the court held that introduction of evidence of the murder at trial was not unduly prejudicial. Noting that it had perviously held that evidence of a shooting was a proper way to show that a defendant possessed a firearm, the court refused to make an exception where the shooting resulted in death. In addition to showing possession, the evidence also went to prove that the firearm was operational and that there was a nexus with interstate commerce (via an examination of the fatal bullet).

Second, the court concluded that the district court did not err by allowing into evidence testimony that Williams was silent when asked by his drug supplier whether he killed someone. While the court agreed with Williams that the silence was not an adoptive admission that could be introduced into evidence as an admission of a party opponent, the court went on to conclude that because the silence was not offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted it was not hearsay at all. Even if it was improperly admitted, the court concluded that any error would be harmless. On a related note, the court held that the Government's reference to that silence during closing argument could not be construed as a comment on Williams's failure to testify at trial.

Finally, the court held that the district court did not err in denying Williams a continuance to have more time to investigate the Government's main witness to the murder.

This case presents an interesting Booker situation, as it was tried between the time the Fourth Circuit handed down Hammoud and the Supreme Court handed down Booker. In spite of Hammoud's holding that the Guidelines did not violate the Sixth Amendment, the Government charged numerous sentencing factors (the murder, most notably) in the indictment and the jury returned findings regarding those factors. Based on the jury's findings, the district court cross-referenced to the murder Guideline and sentenced Williams to life in prison. While the court concluded that there was no Sixth Amendment Booker error due to the jury's findings, the court nonetheless vacated Williams's sentence on statutory Booker grounds because he objected to being sentenced under a mandatory system and the district court provided no insight as to whether it would have imposed the same sentence in an advisory scheme.

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