Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Court Affirms Drug Conspiracy Conivctions

US v. Johnson: Johnson and her codefendants, Martin and Scott, were convicted of conspiracy and other offenses related to a drug distribution scheme that operated across several states. They raised several issues on appeal, but jointly and severally, seeking the reversal of their convictions. Martin also appealed his sentence. The Fourth Circuit rejected all those argument and affirmed.

First, all three defendants argued that the district court erred by not granting a mistrial when a Government witness took the stand and refused to testify. The Government did so, they argued, knowing the witness would refuse to testify and leave the jury with the impression that she had incriminating evidence to offer against them. The court disagreed, concluding that there was no evidence of Government malfeasance nor any evidence of prejudice resulting from the episode. Second, all three defendants argued that the Government improperly vouched for the credibility of its witnesses during closing argument. The court concluded that the prosecutor's use of phrases like "I think" and "I'm convinced" are not vouching.

Johnson argued that the evidence was not sufficient to convict her, an argument the court turned away with a short paragraph of analysis.

Martin raised four issues. First, he argued that the testimony of two expert witnesses violated his Sixth Amendment confrontation right because they testified based on statements from unidentified witnesses. Crawford, the court held, prohibits the use of testimony hearsay as evidence, but not the use of opinions based on such hearsay. The experts in this case presented their own opinions of the language at issue (from phone calls) and were not mere conduits for the presentation of that language to the jury. Second, Martin argued that a 1980 conviction for armed robbery should not have been admitted for impeachment purposes. The court disagreed, finding that if error was committed (which seems likely), it was not prejudicial. Third, Martin argued that had the Supreme Court's decision in Gall been decided prior to his sentencing hearing the district court would have varied from the 360-month sentence advised by the Guidelines. The court disagreed, holding that it can review only the sentence imposed, without consideration of what the district court might have done in different circumstances. Finally, the court rejected Martin's argument to retroactively impose the amended crack guidelines to his case.

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