Friday, August 01, 2014

Course of 10-year drug ring ends in life sentence

US v. Brown:  Jean Brown received convictions for her leading role in a marijuana trafficking operation across several states, Mexico, and Jamaica.  Brown also received convictions for the kidnapping and murder of Michael Knight, a player in the conspiracy.

On appeal, Brown challenges the life sentence she received, based on the district court’s calculation of the drug relevant conduct.  She challenged the admission at trial of videotaped recordings of her police station interviews, arguing in addition that the trial was structurally undermined when the judge left the bench during the playback of one interview.

The videotapes of custodial statements were admissible, according to the Fourth Circuit, because there was no legitimate basis to suppress them.  Brown did not challenge the validity or adequacy of the Miranda warnings she received, rather she claimed that her attorney, hired for a separate case (cash smuggling) was ineffective for failing to accompany her to the police station for these interviews concerning as-yet uncharged criminal activity.  The Fourth Circuit declined to address an ineffectiveness claim on direct appeal, as the facts here did not conclusively establish Brown’s ineffectiveness claims were legitimate.

The Fourth Circuit found that no structural error occurred, despite the fact that the district judge did vacate the bench, without warning, while the jury was shown part of the police station interview videos.  Here, the district court was only absent for a short time after all the evidence had been presented, no rulings were requested in the court’s absence, and nothing else occurred.   Any error here, according to the panel, was harmless.

The district court erred in its drug quantity instruction and verdict form, to which Brown failed to properly object according to the Fourth Circuit.  Further, the marijuana ring involved so many thousands of pounds of marijuana, that the amount involved dwarfed the amount required for the district court to impose a life sentence, so the Fourth Circuit found that the district court did not plainly err in its miscalculation.

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