Thursday, August 23, 2007

Potential Federal Criminality Produces Sufficient Nexus for Witness Tampering

US v. Harris: Codefendants Harris, Royal, and Smith were involved in a firebomb attack on the home of a community activist in Baltimore. The woman, a long time resident of the neighborhood, had begun providing information to Baltimore police regarding drug dealing in the area. As a result, she was subjected to a pattern of harassment that culminated with a firebomb attack on her home. Harris, Royal, and Smith were charged and convicted of, among other things, witness tampering and conspiracy to commit witness tampering.

The main issue at trial, and the crux of the defendants arguments on appeal, was whether there was a sufficient nexus between the information provided by the victim, the attempt to silence her, and a federal investigation. The district court rejected arguments that the Government, so secure convictions for witness tampering, was required to prove that the victim had or was likely to contact federal authorities. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit did the same. First, the court held that it was sufficient that the information provided by the victim concerned a potentially federal offense - drug trafficking - even though she never communicated directly with federal authorities. Second, the court held that the Government was not required to prove that the defendants specifically intended to prevent the communication of information to federal officers, so long as the information related to a potential federal offense.

The court also rejected arguments that Royal and Harris's trial should have been severed from Smith's because of the introduction of a gang video in which Smith appeared and that the prosecution engaged in improper rebuttal closing argument.

However, the court did vacate Smith's sentence because the district court failed to sufficiently justify its variance from the top of the advisory Guideline range (773 months) when imposing his 960-month sentence.

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