March 29, 2015

Tenth Circuit: Death Row Inmate Cannot Show Ineffective Assistance for Failure to Call Witness

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Jones v. Trammell on Friday, December 5, 2014.

On July 28, 1999, Paul Howell was fatally shot in his Suburban in his parents’ driveway in Oklahoma City. Two days later, police found Howell’s Suburban, canvassed the neighborhood where it was found, spoke to various people, and eventually investigated Julius Jones as the suspect in the killing and robbery. Police also investigated Christopher Jordan as the co-conspirator. Police obtained a warrant to search Jones’ parents’ house, where they found the gun used to shoot Howell wrapped in the bandanna worn during the robbery hidden in a hole in the ceiling above Jones’ room. Police found the weapon’s magazine hidden inside the door chime housing.

Jones and Jordan were charged conjointly with conspiracy to commit a felony and with the murder of Howell. Jones was also charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Jordan pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Jones as part of his plea agreement. After a jury trial, Jones was convicted on all three charges. He was sentenced to death on the murder charge, 25 years’ imprisonment on the conspiracy charge, and 15 years’ imprisonment on the weapon charge, to run concurrently.

Jones filed a direct appeal with the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (OCCA) asserting 19 propositions of error, including an ineffective assistance of counsel claim based on his trial counsel’s failure to call Emmanuel Littlejohn as a witness. Littlejohn was Jordan’s cellmate, to whom Jordan had confided that Jones was not involved in the murder and robbery and that Jordan had committed the crimes. Jones’s trial counsel, David McKenzie, in his affidavit, stated he had personally interviewed Littlejohn and spoken to Littlejohn’s attorneys, and had decided not to call him as a witness due to concerns about his credibility. The OCCA affirmed Jones’s convictions and sentences, and expressly rejected his ineffective assistance claim. Jones filed a petition for rehearing and motion to recall the mandate. The OCCA granted the rehearing petition but ultimately concluded there was no merit to Jones’s issues on rehearing and denied the mandate motion. The U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari.

Jones filed an original application for post-conviction relief with the OCCA while his direct appeal was still pending. Proposition One alleged various instances of ineffective assistance of counsel, including allegations that another inmate also overheard Jordan claiming responsibility for the robbery and murder and alleging ineffective assistance for his counsel’s failure to discover this witness. The OCCA denied Jones’s petition for post-conviction relief and expressly rejected Jones’s argument about the other inmate. Jones then filed a petition for federal habeas relief, again asserting an ineffective assistance of counsel claim based on his counsel’s failure to explore the other inmate’s corroborating testimony. The district court denied his petition and refused to issue a COA. The Tenth Circuit subsequently issued a COA on the issue of whether trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to investigate Littlejohn’s claim.

The Tenth Circuit evaluated Jones’s ineffective assistance claim based on the standard set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). Under Strickland, the defendant must show that (1) counsel committed serious errors such that the legal representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness [the performance prong], and (2) there is a reasonable probability that but for counsel’s errors the result of the proceeding would have been different [the prejudice prong]. Jones conceded that the OCCA’s resolution of the ineffective assistance claim he raised on direct appeal “was likely reasonable.” Jones instead asserted that McKenzie’s failure to seek corroboration of Littlejohn’s proposed testimony was error.

The Tenth Circuit rejected Jones’s arguments, finding them based on the erroneous premise that the OCCA’s resolution rested on Strickland‘s performance prong. The Tenth Circuit instead discerned that the OCCA examined the proffered testimony and decided it would not alter the outcome of the proceedings, therefore implicating the prejudice prong. This effectively disposed of Jones’s arguments on appeal, and the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Jones’s habeas petition.

Tenth Circuit: District Court Judgment Affirmed Despite Multiple Assertions of Error

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Brinson on Monday, December 8, 2014.

An undercover officer in Oklahoma solicited prostitution from a website called, and agreed to meet a prostitute at a motel in room 123. At the motel, Officer Osterdyk met C.H., who appeared much younger than 21, and she agreed to perform oral sex on him. She had a cell phone open on the bed, and received text messages during the exchange saying “Don’t do nothing. It’s the cops.” After receiving these messages, C.H.’s demeanor changed, and Officer Osterdyk arrested her.

Other officers were in the parking lot of the motel and observed a black SUV approaching room 123. One of the officers spoke to the hotel desk clerk, who reported that room 123 was rented out to Tarran Brinson, a young black male with dreadlocks or braids wearing a red shirt and a red Chicago Bulls hat. The clerk told the officer that Brinson was a “regular” at the hotel and had rented out four other rooms that week, always paying cash. The clerk said that Brinson drove a black SUV and pointed it out in the parking lot. It was the same SUV the officers saw approaching room 123. Roughly 45 minutes later, the officers found Brinson in the parking lot of a nearby motel and arrested him.

Brinson was charged with conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking, sex trafficking of children, attempted sex trafficking of children, use of a facility in interstate commerce in aid of racketeering enterprise, coercion and enticement, obstruction of justice, and obstruction of justice by threat or corruption. After the government presented its case, Brinson moved for a judgment of acquittal on all charges. The court granted his motion as to the obstruction of justice by threat or corruption charge and denied it as to all other counts. A jury convicted Brinson on the remaining six counts. He appealed on six points of error.

Brinson first argued the district court erred by allowing expert witness testimony on child prostitution, arguing the testimony would not have aided the jury’s assessment and it was not reliable because the expert officer was not familiar with the facts of the case. The Tenth Circuit disagreed. The officer presented testimony on certain terms of the child prostitution trade, which proved helpful to the jury because other witnesses used these terms in testimony. Brinson also argued the testimony was not reliable because the expert officer was not familiar with the facts of the instant case. However, his testimony was used to define terms of the prostitution trade, not to verify the facts of the instant case, and there was no error in its admission.

Next, Brinson argued the admission of certain Facebook and text messages violated his Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause rights. Ample evidence suggested Brinson had authored the Facebook messages, and they were therefore properly admitted as statements of a party opponent, not implicating the Sixth Amendment. As for the text messages, Brinson failed to specify which messages violated his Sixth Amendment rights, so his argument failed.

Brinson also argued the district court erred in allowing introduction of hearsay statements to Officer Osterdyk during his undercover investigation. The statements did not constitute hearsay, as they were not offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted, but rather to explain why Officer Osterdyk was in room 123, why he knew the price of the sexual act, and why he agreed to pay for oral sex. The statements were not hearsay, and the Tenth Circuit found that even if they had been, they were not “testimonial” and therefore no Confrontation Clause violation occurred.

Brinson next argued the district court erred by admitting a certificate authenticating debit card records. The prosecution admitted the certificate to authenticate the records as business records under FRE 902(11). The Tenth Circuit has previously held that such certificates are non-testimonial and therefore do not implicate the Sixth Amendment. Brinson argued that the Supreme Court’s decision in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 557 U.S. 305 (2009), was dispositive, but the Tenth Circuit disagreed, finding instead that the records in Brinson’s case differed from those offered in Melendez-Diaz because the certificate did not contain any “analysis” that would constitute out-of-court testimony.

Brinson argued the evidence obtained after his arrest should have been suppressed, since the police lacked probable cause to arrest him. However, the police had ample reason to arrest Brinson, and there was no error in allowing the evidence obtained after his arrest.

Finally, Brinson argued the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction on each of the six counts. The Tenth Circuit analyzed each count individually and found a reasonable jury could have found Brinson guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of each count.

The Tenth Circuit found that the district court committed no error, and Brinson’s convictions were affirmed.

Electronic Filing and Service Rule of Criminal Procedure Updated

On December 29, 2014, the Colorado Supreme Court approved and adopted Rule Change 2014(17), amending the Colorado Rules of Criminal Procedure. Rule Change 2014(17) amended C.R. Crim. P. 49.5, “Electronic Filing and Service System.” The changes were minor, including updating the web address for the e-filing system, changing capitalization and punctuation, and moving the rule about nunc pro tunc orders. The rule change also added a Committee Comment. A redline of the changes is available here.

For all of State Judicial’s adopted and proposed rule changes, click here.

Tenth Circuit: District Court Erred in Suggesting Offense Level Before Finding Facts

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Sabillon-Umana on Monday, December 8, 2014.

Elder Geovany Sabillon-Umana was convicted of drug offenses as part of a larger trafficking scheme. Because of his relatively small role in the scheme, the district court suggested that he should have a base Guidelines offense level of 32 and requested the prosecutor to justify that offense level. The prosecutor offered facts to support the offense level, telling the court that finding Sabillon-Umana responsible for 1.5 kilos of heroin and 1.5 kilos of cocaine would arrive at that offense level, and the court adopted those factual findings. Later in the proceedings, when the defendant requested a sentence reduction for compliance with the prosecution, the court rejected his request, instead finding the prosecution had authority to issue sentence reductions.

The Tenth Circuit found two errors in the district court proceedings. First, the Tenth Circuit sharply reprimanded the district court for reversing the proper order of proceedings by deciding on an offense level before finding facts. The Tenth Circuit evaluated the facts on which Sabillon-Umana’s conviction was based and found he could only be responsible for 1.5 kilos of heroin and cocaine combined, not 1.5 kilos of each, which would reduce his base offense level to 30.

Next, the Tenth Circuit found plain error in the district court’s failure to reduce the sentence due to Sabillon-Umana’s participation with the prosecution. The district court had contemplated a sentence of 72 months prior to stating it would not reduce the sentence unless the prosecution suggested it, and instead arrived at a sentence of 96 months. The Tenth Circuit found that sentencing discretion lies solely in the court.

The case was remanded for resentencing.

Colorado Court of Appeals: DNA Test Unlikely to Prove Defendant’s Factual Innocence


DNA Evidence—Testing—Due Process—Destruction of Evidence.

This appeal stemmed from defendant’s 1988 conviction for kidnapping and sexual assault. On direct appeal, it was determined that the trial court had not abused its discretion in denying defendant’s request for DNA testing because “defendant was seen committing the offense by a police officer and was identified by the victim,” making “the utility of DNA testing . . . speculative at best.” Defendant thereafter filed a Crim.P. 35(c) motion requesting post-conviction testing of DNA. The prosecution conducted DNA testing on the victim’s underwear and did not find any traces of semen and saliva. Defendant then requested his own DNA testing, but the evidence had been destroyed.

On appeal, defendant requested a remedy for the negligent destruction of the underwear. However, defendant was not entitled to testing of the underwear under CRS § 18-1-413 in the first instance because he failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that favorable results of DNA testing would demonstrate his actual innocence. Therefore, the trial court did not err and defendant was not entitled to relief under CRS § 18-1-414(2)(b). The trial court’s determination that the destruction of the evidence did not violate defendant’s due process rights was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Speedy Trial Act Implicated when Charges Filed, Dropped, Then Filed Again

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Nelson on Thursday, December 4, 2014.

Rental Vehicle—Speedy Trial—Jury Instructions—Affirmative Defense—Consent—Mistake of Fact.

Defendant rented a vehicle from Mesa Motors, Inc. (Mesa). After using the vehicle for about two months, defendant told Mesa’s owner he wanted to buy the vehicle and agreed to pay any accrued rental charges up to the date of purchase; however, defendant did not pay the purchase price or the unpaid rental charges. Mesa’s owner went to the address defendant had provided him and discovered that defendant no longer lived there. He reported the vehicle stolen and left a message with defendant to that effect, at which point defendant surrendered the vehicle. A jury found defendant guilty of aggravated motor vehicle theft.

On appeal, defendant contended that his statutory right to a speedy trial was violated. The prosecutor dismissed the original charges against defendant and later refiled them. The district court found, with record support, that the prosecutor had not dismissed the charges and refiled them to avoid the statutory six-month deadline. Because defendant’s trial began within six months after he pleaded not guilty to the refiled charges, there was no violation of his statutory right to a speedy trial.

Defendant also contended that his right to a speedy trial under both the U.S. and Colorado Constitutions was violated. The period during which defendant originally faced the charges must be included in considering his constitutional speedy trial claim. Adding the period from the initial filing of the charges to the dismissal of the charges (229 days) to the period from the refiling of the charges to the beginning of trial (189 days) equals more than one year, a presumptively prejudicial length of time. However, because defendant failed to establish any significant prejudice by the delay, he was not denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial.

Defendant further argued that the court erred in denying his two jury instructions on purported affirmative defenses: consent and mistake of fact. Though consent and mistake of fact can be affirmative defenses (depending on the elements of the charged crime), they were not affirmative defenses in this case because defendant denied committing the crime. Therefore, although defendant was free to argue that the evidence of consent and mistake of fact showed that he had not deceived the victim, he was not entitled to separate instructions on those defenses characterizing them as affirmative defenses, which the prosecution was required to disprove beyond a reasonable doubt. The judgment was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Academic Theories Addressed in Research Studies Do Not Constitute Evidence

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Bonan on Thursday, November 21, 2014.

Sexual Assault—Post-Conviction Relief—Crim.P. 35(c)—Scientific Research—New Evidence.

In 1988, Bonan was charged with four counts of sexual assault on a child—position of trust, and four counts of second-degree assault on a child. The charges stemmed from allegations by Bonan’s ex-girlfriend’s three young children that he had sexually assaulted them while living with them from July to November 1986. A jury convicted defendant as charged.

In February 2006, Bonan filed a motion for post-conviction relief under Crim.P. 35(c), asserting that recent scientific research has produced an undisputed body of facts that renders the state’s expert opinion testimony foundationless and contradicts the state’s experts’ proposition that they were capable of determining whether a child’s report is accurate. The motion characterized the research as newly discovered evidence. This motion was denied. Bonan filed another motion in 2011, asserting a newly discovered evidence claim similar to his 2006 motion, which was denied as successive and time barred.

On appeal, Bonan contended that the trial court erred in denying his post-conviction motion as untimely. Bonan’s motion was untimely because he did not assert justifiable excuse or excusable neglect in his motion. Further, because academic theories addressed in research studies do not constitute evidence, and therefore cannot constitute new evidence, Bonan had no justifiable excuse or excusable neglect for the late filing of his Crim.P. 35(c) motion.

Bonan further contended that the trial court erred in denying his post-conviction motion as successive. Absent application to the testimony used to convict him, the theories addressed in the academic studies Bonan identifies are not probative of his innocence and therefore do not constitute new evidence under Crim.P. 35(c). Accordingly, the trial court did not err in denying Bonan’s post-conviction motion as successive. The order was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Guilty Plea Does Not Waive Defendant’s Right to Contest Evidence Admission for Other Purposes

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Farmer on Wednesday, November 5, 2014.

Joseph Farmer was pulled over on I-40 in Oklahoma in June 2012. The officer who stopped him smelled marijuana and asked to search the car. During the search, the officer found a loaded .357 revolver under the front edge of the driver’s seat. Based on these facts, a jury convicted Farmer of being a felon in possession of a firearm, and he was sentenced to 60 months’ imprisonment followed by three years’ supervised release. Farmer appealed, contending the evidence of his 2010 firearm possession should have been suppressed because the evidence was obtained in an unlawful search.

The Tenth Circuit examined the prior firearm possession charge, and determined that although Farmer had pled guilty to the possession charge, thereby waiving his right to appeal that charge, he did not waive the right to assert that the search was unlawful for other purposes. The Tenth Circuit found that it was error for the district court to rule that Farmer had waived his right to challenge the search by pleading guilty. However, it found that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Farmer’s defense at trial was that he did not know that the firearm was in the car. The government presented evidence that Farmer tried to distract the officer while he was searching the driver’s side of the car, muttered about the gun while the officer was searching, and tried to get his passenger to claim the gun as hers. These facts overwhelmingly support the conviction, regardless of the evidence of the prior conviction.

Farmer also argued the prosecutor’s closing remarks deprived him of a fair trial. During closing, the prosecutor made statements that the deputy had nothing to gain by planting a gun in Farmer’s car, which Farmer argued impermissibly vouched for the officer’s credibility. The Tenth Circuit disagreed, finding instead that the prosecutor was addressing the defense’s argument that the officer had planted the gun. The Tenth Circuit found that the prosecutor’s other remarks were harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed Farmer’s conviction.

Tenth Circuit: States Have Wide Latitude to Determine Which Offenses are Serious for ACCA Purposes

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Titley on Tuesday, November 4, 2014.

John Ervin Titley pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. He was sentenced, and his sentence was enhanced due to the provisions of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), due to his three prior felony convictions. Although Mr. Titley agrees his Missouri armed robbery conviction qualifies for ACCA purposes, he argues that his convictions for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute in Arkansas and unlawful possession of marijuana with intent to distribute in Oklahoma should not qualify because in 19 other states and the District of Columbia those crimes would not have constituted “serious drug offenses.” Mr. Titley argued this violates the Equal Protection clause.

The Tenth Circuit, applying rational basis review, analyzed whether the challenged ACCA provision is rationally related to a legitimate government purpose, and found that it was. ACCA’s purpose is to incapacitate repeat offenders who possess firearms and deter such conduct in others. Mr. Titley does not challenge the purpose, but instead argues ACCA violates equal protection because it does not apply uniformly to similarly situated defendants. The Tenth Circuit found that Congress afforded the states wide latitude in determining which crimes they regarded as serious. Rational basis does not require uniformity.

The sentence was affirmed.

Colorado Supreme Court: “Actual Notice” Means “Actual Knowledge” Under UMDDA

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in People v. McKimmy on Monday, October 27, 2014.

Uniform Mandatory Disposition of Detainers Act—Actual Notice.

The Supreme Court clarified the process for invoking one’s rights under the Uniform Mandatory Disposition of Detainers Act (UMDDA or Act), CRS §§ 16-14-101 to -108. Even when prisoners do not strictly comply with the UMDDA’s requirements, the Court previously determined that they invoke their rights under the Act if (1) their request substantially complies with the Act’s requirements, and (2) the prosecution receives “actual notice” of their request.

Here, the Court held that, for purposes of substantial compliance under the UMDDA, “actual notice” means “actual knowledge.” Therefore, the Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and remanded the case with instructions to return the case to the trial court for further fact-finding. Specifically, the trial court should determine: (1) when the prosecution gained actual knowledge of defendant’s UMDDA requests in each of his cases, at which point defendant would have effectively invoked his rights under the Act; and (2) whether any UMDDA violations subsequently occurred.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Improper Jury Instruction Amounted to Directed Verdict for Prosecution

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Bertrand on Thursday, October 23, 2014.

Sexual Assault—Evidence—CRS §18-3-402(1)(b)—Asleep—Jury Instruction.

Defendant is the cousin of K.B., the alleged victim. K.B. suffered from developmental disabilities, and lived with her parents because she was unable to care for herself. On several occasions while defendant lived with K.B. and her family, defendant got into bed with K.B. and had sexual intercourse with her. K.B. later told her mother that defendant had had sex with her, but that she did not want to have sex with him. The family made a report to police, and a jury ultimately convicted defendant of two counts of sexual assault.

On appeal, defendant contended that there was insufficient evidence to show that K.B. was incapable of appraising the nature of her conduct as required by CRS § 18-3-402(1)(b). K.B. suffered from cognitive difficulties, and she took medication before bedtime that made her groggy and sleepy. The jury could have reasonably inferred from this evidence that she was incapable of appraising the nature of her conduct when defendant was having sex with her. The jury could also have reasonably concluded that defendant knew that K.B. was unable to appraise the nature of her conduct. Therefore, the evidence was sufficient to sustain defendant’s conviction under CRS § 18-3-402(1)(b).

Defendant also contended that one of the jury instructions improperly directed a verdict in favor of the prosecution. The jury instruction stated that “[a] person is incapable of appraising the nature of her conduct when she is asleep or partially asleep during an assault.” The instruction should have stated that a person “may be” incapable.Because the error was not harmless, the conviction was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Two Convictions for Same Incident Violated Rights Against Double Jeopardy

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Frye on Thursday, October 23, 2014.

Miranda Rights—Suppression—Jury Question—Double Jeopardy—Controlled Substances—CRS § 18-8-203(1).

Defendant was arrested on outstanding warrants. While she was being booked into the Jefferson County jail, drugs were found on her person. A jury convicted her of multiple charges related to the drugs.

On appeal, defendant contended that the trial court erred in refusing to suppress her statement that she did not possess any drugs, which she made at the jail before having been advised of her right to remain silent. Although the trial court erred, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt; evidence of defendant’s guilt was overwhelming.

Defendant also contended that the trial court erred in responding to a jury question dealing with an officer’s right to request identification from a passenger during a routine traffic stop. However, there was no reasonable probability that the error contributed to defendant’s conviction, because (1) the evidence of defendant’s guilt was overwhelming; (2) the court instructed the jury that it was not an issue for them to determine; and (3) it did not bolster the officer’s credibility regarding any material issue.

Defendant further contended that one conviction for introducing contraband into a detention facility must be vacated or merged because she could not be convicted twice for introducing two types of drugs at the same time. The search of defendant at the jail revealed methamphetamine, cocaine, and oxycodone. The jury convicted her on two of these counts and acquitted her on one of them, and the trial court imposed concurrent sentences on the two convictions. Because defendant’s entry into the jail occurred at the same time and place, without the influence of any intervening events, her convictions were a violation of her rights against double jeopardy. The case was remanded to vacate one of the convictions.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.