May 19, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Lengthy Sentence Justified by Defendant’s Human Rights Violations

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Worku on Tuesday, September 1, 2015.

Mr. Habteab Berhe Temanu’s children approached Kefelegne Alemu Worku, an Ethiopian man, and asked him to assume the identity of their father because they were afraid they would not be able to complete the admission requirements to enter the United States due to his dementia. Worku assumed Berhe’s identity and later became a U.S. citizen under Berhe’s name. Immigration authorities learned Worku was using a false identity and suspected he had tortured Ethiopian prisoners in the ’70s. After an investigation and trial, Worku was convicted of unlawful procurement of citizenship or naturalization, fraud and misuse of visas and other documents, and aggravated identity theft. He was sentenced to 22 years, partly because of a finding that he had committed the identity theft crimes to conceal the Ethiopian human rights violations.

On appeal, Worku contended (1) the immigration convictions violated the Double Jeopardy clause, (2) his aggravated identity theft conviction was improper because he had permission to use Berhe’s identity, (3) the sentence was procedurally improper because there was no evidence he had come to the United States to conceal human rights violations and the witnesses identifying him as the torturer did so due to impermissively suggestive photo arrays, and (4) the sentence was substantively unreasonable.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed Worku’s Double Jeopardy argument. Worku argued that his unlawful procurement of citizenship and aggravated identity theft convictions were predicated on the same conduct. Under a plain error review, the Tenth Circuit affirmed, finding that Count 1 was based on Worku’s form for naturalization and Count 3 was based on misrepresentations in his application for permanent residence. Worku contended the distinction was blurred in the jury instructions, but the Tenth Circuit disagreed. The Tenth Circuit found that the evidence of guilt was overwhelming and uncontroverted, and Double Jeopardy was not implicated.

Next, the Tenth Circuit addressed Worku’s contention that he could not be convicted of aggravated identity theft because he had permission to use Berhe’s identity. The Tenth Circuit found no error in this conviction, because the statute only allows an individual to permit use of his or her identity and in this case the individual’s children were the ones who allowed Worku to use the identity.

The Tenth Circuit then turned to Worku’s argument that he was denied due process because photo arrays in which he was identified as the notorious prison supervisor who had tortured inmates were unduly suggestive. The Tenth Circuit evaluated the photo arrays and found that although there were differences in the arrays, there was no error in the district court’s determination that they were not impermissively suggestive because appearances would be expected to have changed over the 30-plus-year time span. The Tenth Circuit also evaluated the witnesses’ testimony and found that because the witnesses were victims of Worku’s horrific acts of torture, the time span was inconsequential and their identification with “100% certainty” was reliable.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit addressed the substantive reasonableness of Worku’s sentence. The district court decided to stray from the Guidelines range because there were not enough cases involving human rights violators entering the United States to provide a reliable comparison. The district court imposed the maximum sentence for each count to fully compensate for the egregiousness of Worku’s human rights violations. The Tenth Circuit found no abuse of discretion in the district court’s decision.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s conviction and sentence.

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