Monday, July 03, 2006

Court Upholds Conspiracy, Murder Conviction Over Charges of Judicial Bias

US v. Smith: Smith and a co-defendant, Smallwood, were convicted of conspiracy to distribute crack and murder in furtherance of that conspiracy. Smith and Smallwood were part of a large-scale crack distribution operation in and around Washington, DC. During the operation, they suspected one of their regular customers of providing information leading to a robbery at Smith and Smallwood's apartment that they used to process cocaine into crack. Once they tracked down the customer, they took him to an alley in downtown DC and shot him in the head multiple times at close range. They were tried and convicted in the Eastern District of VA and sentenced to life in prison.

The Fourth Circuit rejected all of Smith and Smallwood's arguments on appeal. First, the court brushed aside the contention that the district court was unduly biased towards the prosecution and improperly questioned witnesses and undermined defense strategy. The court held, using a plain error standard of review, that the district court did nothing wrong in questioning some witnesses to clarify matters (the trial lasted two weeks) and did not cast dispersions upon defense witnesses. Second, the court held that venue was proper in the EDVA. Because the underlying offense was conspiracy, and some of the actions of the conspiracy took place in EDVA, venue for both the conspiracy and murder charge was proper there. Third, the court rejected Smallwood's argument that a prior plea agreement with the Government prohibited the Government from prosecuting him in this case. Finally, the court held that neither defendant could show prejudice under White and therefore upheld their sentences under Booker.

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