Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Court Clarifies "Evidnce as a Whole" in 2255 Cases

US v. MacDonald: MacDonald was convicted in 1979 of murdering his wife and two daughters at Fort Bragg in 1970. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence. In 2006, he filed (with permission from the Fourth Circuit) a successive 2255 motion asserting a due process claim of newly discovered evidence with regards to a former US Deputy Marshal named Britt ("Britt claim"). Britt stated that he was present when the prosecutor at MacDonald's trial interviewed another potential suspect (and defense witness) and threatened her with being prosecuted for the murders if the testified consistently with what she told him. Shortly thereafter, results of DNA testing (authorized by the Fourth Circuit in 1997!) became available. MacDonald (without permission) added a claim of actual innocence based on the results of the DNA tests ("DNA claim"). He also urged the district court to consider the DNA evidence as part of the "evidence as a whole" in resolving the Britt claim. The district court denied relief. As to the DNA claim, the court found it lacked jurisdiction because MacDonald failed to get permission to file that claim. As to the Britt claim, after a "more searching" analysis than the Fourth Circuit made, the court denied MacDonald leave to file the new 2255 motion.

The Fourth Circuit (a two-judge panel, due to the death of Judge Michael after oral argument) reversed and remanded for further consideration of both claims. As to the Britt claim, the court found that the district court applied the standard of review applicable to review of state convictions, rather than federal ones. While the standards were very similar, the court remanded for reconsideration rather than find the error be harmless because "the court committed prejudicial error by taking an overly restrictive view of what constitutes the 'evidence as a whole'" by not expanding the record to consider evidence received after trial and MacDonald's initial 2255 petition. The district court erred by limiting its review to only the trial record and the specific newly presented evidence of the Britt claim. As to the DNA claim, the court concluded that the district court had jurisdiction over it because it was properly added to an otherwise authorized successive motion. The court did not reach the substance of either of MacDonald's new claims.

Flight Tolls Supervised Release Term

US v. Buchanan: Buchanan started his five-year term of supervised release in 1993. He was allowed to relocate to Ohio, but his supervision continued out of the Eastern District of Virginia. In 1994, he was indicted on state drug charges in Ohio. When his trial started in 1995, Buchanan was a no show. His probation officer in Virginia filed a petition to revoke Buchanan's supervised release and a warrant was issued. Years passed, until Buchanan was located and arrested in Georgia in 2008. After his arrest, the probation officer in Virginia filed two addenda to the petition to revoke. Buchanan moved to dismiss the addenda, as they were filed after his five-year term had expired. The district court held that the term was tolled while Buchanan was on the lam, revoked his supervised release, and sentenced him to concurrent sentences of 48, 36, and 27 months on the petition and two addenda.*

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court. The court noted that the supervised release statute does not address whether a term tolls while a supervisee is AWOL, if no petition/warrant is issued during the supervised release term. For the First Circuit, that means it does not toll. For the Ninth, it read into the statute a tolling mechanism in order to avoid providing supervisees with a reason to abscond. The Fourth Circuit followed the Ninth (I can't believe I actually wrote that!), holding that to do otherwise would foil congressional intent and reward absconders.

* This completely baffles me. In every supervised release case I've seen, there's only been one sentence per SR term, not one per violation (or batch of violations). Since Buchanan didn't challenge the initial petition, which was the basis of the 48-month term, the Fourth Circuit could have dismissed the appeal under the "concurrent sentence doctrine" but declined to do so.

Court Affirms Threatening Mail Convictions for Letters to USMS

US v. Rendelman: Rendelman went to trial (pro se) on six counts of mailing threatening communications under 18 USC 876(c). The threat in Count Two was directed specifically at the president, while the threat in Count Seven (one count of the indictment was dismissed before trial) was directed against the president and "all White House employees." Both counts involved letters sent to the US Marshal's Service while Rendelman was incarcerated. He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 180 months in prison, including an enhanced 120-month term on Count Seven (in which the stat max was doubled because of the threat to White House employees).

On appeal, Rendelman (no longer pro se) raised several challenges to Counts Two and Seven, which the Fourth Circuit rejected. First, he argued that both counts were fatally defective for failing to allege violations of the statute. As to Count Two, the court rejected Rendelman's argument that the USMS is not a "person" under 876(c), holding that Count Two alleged the fundamental elements of the offense: mailing, threat, and mens rea. The same argument met the same fate on Count Seven, which also set forth the element triggering the enhanced statutory maximum. Second, the court rejected Rendelman's argument that the evidence was insufficient to support the convictions, including the jury's determination that the Count Seven enhancement had been triggered. Finally, the court rejected, with little discussion, his argument that the charges had been constructively amended at trial.