Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Court Affirms Death Sentence In Double Murder; No Right of Confrontation At Capital Sentencing

US v. Umana: Umana shot and killed two men in a North Carolina restaurant after a dispute over music and because one of the victims disrespected MS-13, the gang to which Umana belonged.  He was convicted on multiple counts arising from the murders which carried the potential maximum sentence of death.  During trial, Umana tired to smuggle a blade into the courtroom and threatened a witness after he testified.  After hearing evidence about Umana's lengthy history with MS-13 (which continued after his arrest), including participation in other murders, the jury sentenced him to death.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed Umana's convictions and sentence.  On the convictions, it first concluded that venue was proper in the Western District of NC, even though the shootings took place in the Middle District, because the racketeering operation of which the murders were a part took place in both districts.  Second, the court rejected (under a plain error analysis) Umana's argument that the murder in aid of racketeering charges fell outside the scope of Congress's authority under the Commerce Clause.  Third, the court rejected Umana's argument that two jurors, who expressed some equivocation as to their ability to fairly consider the case, should have been excused for cause.

On the sentence, the court first held that the use of a statement Umana gave to California investigators after his arrest about his activities there did not violate the Fifth Amendment, as he was given Miranda warnings, he explained them, and was otherwise willing to talk.  It did not matter that the investigators told him the statement would not be used in this case and he had "nothing to lose" by talking to them.  Next, the court concluded that the testimony of officers about their interviews with other witnesses was properly admitted, as it was not hearsay and did not implicate the Confrontation Clause, which does not apply during sentencing proceedings.  Nor did the district court err by admitting those statements, even though they contained comments from the investigators that appeared to vouch for their credibility.  Third, the court held that the district court did not err by precluding Umana from introducing evidence of murders committed by his coconspirators, in order to show "his own violent proclivities were not unique, but rather were a 'product of social conformity.'"  Finally, the court rejected Umana's claim that statements by the prosecution during closing arguments were improper and prejudicial.

Judge Gregory dissented, arguing that the Confrontation Clause does apply to capital sentencing, although it does not in non-capital sentencing proceedings.

NOTE: The court denied Umana's request to reconsider its decision en banc.  The request did, however, provoke substantive opinions from Judge Wilkinson (not in favor of rehearing) and Judge Gregory (in favor), which can be found here.

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