The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Craig on Tuesday, December 22, 2015.
Christopher Craig participated in a conspiracy from January 2006 until December 2012 in Kansas City, Missouri, the general purpose of which was the distribution and sale of marijuana and cocaine. In August 2012, Craig orchestrated the armed robbery of a rival drug-dealer by recruiting his two cousins, DaRyan Pryor and Arterrius Pryor, to actually commit the robbery, while Craig remained in the driver’s seat of the get-away vehicle. During the course of the robbery, DaRyan Pryor was fatally shot by the rival drug-dealer. In November 2013, a grand jury charged Defendant Christopher Craig with three separate counts as part of a twenty-seven-count indictment containing nine other co-defendants. The first count charged Defendant with conspiring to manufacture and distribute cocaine and marijuana, and maintaining a drug-involved premises. The other two counts charged Defendant with using a communication facility to commit this conspiracy. The indictment, however, did not list either DaRyan or Arterrius as co-conspirators, and Defendant was not charged with the murder of DaRyan Pryor.
After Defendant pleaded guilty to the three charges against him, the Presentence Investigation Report (“PSR”), relying on the United States Sentencing Guidelines Manual (“Sentencing Guidelines”), suggested the district court should take DaRyan’s death into account when determining Defendant’s sentence by applying a murder cross-reference under the Sentencing Guidelines. Second, the PSR recommended the district court impose a leadership enhancement under the Sentencing Guidelines because Defendant organized the armed robbery of the rival drug-dealer that resulted in DaRyan’s death. Third, stemming from Defendant’s refusal to provide a court ordered voice exemplar, for which Defendant was held in contempt of court, the PSR moved the district court to apply the obstruction of justice enhancement under the Sentencing Guidelines.
The district court ultimately applied the murder cross-reference, the leadership enhancement, and the obstruction of justice enhancement, resulting in Defendant’s total offense level to be calculated as a level 43, the maximum level allowed under the Sentencing Guidelines. Combined with Defendant’s category III criminal history, this corresponded to a sentence of life imprisonment for the conspiracy count and 48 months’ imprisonment for the communication facility counts. Defendant appealed the sentencing order, arguing the district court erred in applying the murder, leadership, and obstruction of justice enhancements, as well as arguing the sentence of life imprisonment is substantively unreasonable.
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s sentencing order and application of the murder cross-reference, leadership enhancement, and obstruction of justice enhancement. With respect to the murder cross-reference, the Tenth Circuit concluded the preponderance of the evidence suggested DaRyan’s death was in furtherance of the overarching drug-trafficking conspiracy. As such, DaRyan’s death resulting from the attempted robbery was “relevant conduct” under the Sentencing Guidelines, and therefore, the Tenth Circuit concluded the district court did not err in applying the murder cross-reference.
After concluding the attempted robbery was relevant conduct to Defendant’s underlying conspiracy conviction, the court began its analysis of the leadership enhancement by noting that the leadership role need only be over “one or more participants” of a “criminal activity” of “five or more participants.” The Tenth Circuit concluded the district court did not err in applying the leadership enhancement, for the evidence presented at the sentencing hearing supports its finding that Defendant led one of the participants (DaRyan) of a criminal activity (the underlying conspiracy) that involved five or more participants (at least nine other participants).
With respect to the enhancement for obstruction of justice, Defendant argued his plea of guilty eliminated any obstruction of justice that may have occurred. The Tenth Circuit rejected this argument, reasoning Defendant attempted to make prosecution against him more difficult in refusing to provide a voice exemplar the Government had a legal right to possess because he knew it could be used to identify his voice in incriminating situations, and his subsequent guilty plea did not purge him of this refusal. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held the district court did not error in applying the obstruction of justice enhancement.
Lastly, the Tenth Circuit held the district court did not abuse its discretion in imposing a sentence of life imprisonment on Defendant, as Defendant’s life sentence was not substantively unreasonable, considering the fact that Defendant organized an attempted robbery that resulted in the death of a man over whom he had a significant amount of control and influence.
Max Montag is a 2016 J.D. Candidate at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.