Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

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Petitioner was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. His conviction was affirmed on direct appeal and his state habeas petition was also unsuccessful. Through state habeas counsel, Petitioner filed a motion for the appointment of counsel, under 18 U.S.C. Sec. 3599(a)(2), to assist him in preparing a petition for federal habeas relief. Petitioner identified specific attorneys he wanted to represent him. The district court granted Petitioner's motion for counsel, but appointed an attorney other than those requested by Petitioner. Petitioner subsequently filed a motion under Sec. 3599(a)(2), seeking to substitute his court-appoitned counsel. The district court rejected Petitioner's request, holding he had not offered a sufficient basis for substituting counsel because the court-appointed conflict-free counsel was competent to handle death-penalty matters. Petitioner appealed the court's interlocutory order.On appeal, the Fifth Circuit dismissed Petitioner's appeal. The court noted that it routinely reviews challenges to the denial of a motion to substitute counsel on appeal from a final judgment. Thus, the judgment petitioner challenged did not trigger the court's jurisdiction under the collateral-order doctrine. View "Tracy v. Lumpkin" on Justia Law

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The First Circuit affirmed Defendant's conviction of three counts of engaging in the business of dealing a firearm without a license and sentence of sixty months' imprisonment, holding that there was no error or abuse of discretion in the district court's imposition of Defendant's sentence.Defendant admitted to engaging in the business of illegally dealing firearms on three separate occasions over more than one year. The district court imposed a sixty-month sentence. Defendant appealed his sentence, arguing that his sentence was procedurally and substantively unreasonable. The First Circuit affirmed, holding that there was no error as to the procedural objections and no abuse of discretion in the length of the sentence imposed. View "United States v. Andujar-Colon" on Justia Law

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The Sixth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the judgment of the district court denying Defendant's motion to vacate his convictions under 28 U.S.C. 2255, holding that the district court erred by denying Defendant's request to vacate his 18 U.S.C. 924(j) conviction.Defendant pled guilty to discharging a firearm during a crime of violence that resulted in death, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 924(j), and illegally possessing a firearm as a felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). On appeal, Defendant argued, among other things, that the Court should vacate his crime-of-violence conviction under section 924(j) because of the Supreme Court's decision in Rehaif v. United States, 139 S.Ct. 2191 (2019). The Sixth Circuit agreed and vacated that conviction, holding that, given Davis, Defendant did not violate section 924(j) because his attempted robbery did not qualify as a crime of violence under the constitutional portion of section 924's definition. View "Wallace v. United States" on Justia Law

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The Sixth Circuit affirmed the order of the district court vacating its previous judgment, in which it granted Defendant's 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion and vacated his sentence, and reinstating Defendant's original sentence, holding that the district court did not enjoy the discretion to resentence Defendant de novo.More than a decade ago, Defendant pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm as a felon. In part because Defendant had prior Tennessee convictions for aggravated burglary the district court designated sentenced Defendant under the Armed Career Criminal Act. Defendant later moved to vacate his sentence under section 2255, arguing that his prior Tennessee convictions for aggravated burglary did not constitute violent felonies given recent developments in Armed Career Criminal Act jurisprudence. The district court granted the motion and vacated Defendant's sentence. Due to intervening Supreme Court caselaw decided before resentencing, the district court vacated the order granting Defendant's section 2255 motion, denied the motion, and reinstated the original sentence. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, holding that Defendant lacked any viable section 2255 claim. View "Mitchell v. United States" on Justia Law

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Defendant Jerry Vang was convicted by jury for multiple crimes against two different victims, including: kidnapping first degree felony murder with a special circumstance, infliction of corporal injury on a cohabitant, making criminal threats with firearm allegations, and firearms possession by a felon. Defendant had a long history of domestic violence, had an argument with his wife. After she fled in her car, defendant followed, eventually forced her to stop, and coerced her (through force or fear) into his vehicle. As defendant was driving away, his wife opened the door and jumped from the moving vehicle, resulting in her death. Defendant argued the trial court erred by permitting the prosecution to proceed on a legally inadequate theory of felony murder. He contends that under the current felony-murder rule, as amended by Senate Bill No. 1437 (2017-2018 Reg. Sess.), he could be liable for felony murder only if he was proven to be the “actual killer.” Because the evidence showed that his wife jumped from the vehicle of her own volition, defendant contends he was not the actual killer and therefore his conviction for first degree felony murder with a special circumstance rested on a legally invalid theory. To this, the Court of Appeal agreed, and reversed that conviction as to first degree felony murder. The judgment and convictions were affirmed in all other respects. View "California v. Vang" on Justia Law

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In this sentencing appeal following a child pornography conviction, Appellant asked the Fifth Circuit to disturb the district court’s revocation judgment, claiming the judge (1) relied on unsworn statements by the prosecutor, and (2) announced conditions of supervised release that conflicted with the written judgment.The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The court concluded that the record belies both claims. For one, ample evidence supported the prosecutor’s comments—precluding any legitimate claim of plain error. Second, the record reveals that the challenged discrepancy produced nothing more than ambiguity that is resolved by the district court’s clearly expressed intent: reimposition of the original conditions of supervised release. View "USA v. Porter" on Justia Law

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The California Supreme Court affirmed Petitioner’s conviction and sentence on direct appeal and later summarily rejected “on the merits” Petitioner’s state habeas petition. Petitioner argued primarily that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).Petitioner argued that the Ninth Circuit should review his Strickland claims de novo, because the California Supreme Court’s four-sentence denial of his claims “on the merits,” without issuing an order to show cause, signifies that the court concluded only that his petition did not state a prima facie case for relief such that there is no “adjudication on the merits” to which this court owes deference under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA).The Ninth Circuit disagreed, citing Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170 (2011), in which the Supreme Court afforded AEDPA deference to the California Supreme Court’s summary denial of a habeas petition raising a Strickland claim. The court, therefore, applied the deferential AEDPA standard, asking whether the denial of Petitioner’s claims “involved an unreasonable application of” Strickland.The court held, however, under AEDPA's highly deferential standard of review, that the California Supreme Court could reasonably have concluded that Petitioner’s claim fails under the second prong of Strickland. The court wrote that comparing the mitigation evidence that was offered with what would have been offered but for Petitioner’s trial attorney’s alleged errors, the state court could reasonably have decided that there was not a substantial likelihood that the jury would have returned a different sentence if the attorney had not performed deficiently. View "RICHARD MONTIEL V. KEVIN CHAPPELL" on Justia Law

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In 1988, a California jury sentenced Petitioner to death for murdering another person with an ax. The California Supreme Court affirmed Petitioner’s conviction and sentence on direct appeal and later denied his state habeas petition. Petitioner now seeks federal habeas relief. He argues that the state prosecutor improperly vouched for a witness’s credibility, that his attorney was ineffective in not objecting to the vouching, and that the state trial court, in the penalty phase, improperly excluded the prosecution’s earlier plea offer to Petitioner as claimed mitigating evidence.The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment denying Petitioner’s habeas corpus petition. The court that no clearly established federal constitutional law holds that an unaccepted plea offer qualifies as evidence in mitigation that must be admitted in a capital penalty proceeding. The court held that regardless, Petitioner cannot show prejudice. The court wrote that given the extreme aggravating factors that the State put forward coupled with Petitioner’s already extensive but unsuccessful presentation of mitigating evidence, there is no basis to conclude that the jury would have reached a different result if it had considered Petitioner’s unaccepted plea. View "CURTIS FAUBER V. RONALD DAVIS" on Justia Law

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Defendants Orlando Cortez-Nieto and Jesus Cervantes-Aguilar were convicted by a jury of four methamphetamine offenses committed within 1,000 feet of a playground. After their convictions Defendants moved for judgment of acquittal. The district court granted the motions in part, setting aside the convictions on the ground that there was insufficient evidence that any of the offenses of conviction occurred within 1,000 feet of a playground, but entering judgments of conviction on lesser-included offenses (the four offenses without the proximity element). In their consolidated appeal, Defendants argued: (1) that a jury instruction stating that the jury should not consider the guilt of any persons other than Defendants improperly precluded the jury from considering that two government witnesses were motivated to lie about Defendants to reduce or eliminate their own guilt, and the prosecutor improperly magnified this error by explicitly arguing that the jurors could not consider the witnesses’ guilt in assessing their credibility; (2) the district court should not have imposed judgments of conviction on the lesser-included offenses after determining that the original charges had not been proved because the jury had not been instructed on the lesser-included offenses; and (3) remand was necessary to correct a clerical error in the judgment forms. The Tenth Circuit determined only that the clerical error warranted correction. The Court affirmed the district court in all other respects. View "United States v. Cortez-Nieto" on Justia Law

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Appellant was indicted for transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, attempted production of child pornography, and commission of a felony involving a minor by a person required to register as a sex offender. After a bifurcated jury and bench trial, Appellant was convicted on all counts.   On appeal, Appellant brings three challenges to his convictions. First, he contends that the district court abused its discretion by admitting the government’s expert testimony concerning the approximate locations of Appellant’s and the transported minor’s cell phones on the night of their meeting. Second, Appellant argues that the government should have been required to prove not just that he transported a minor to engage in sexual activity, but that he knew she was underage. Third, Appellant challenges the constitutionality of the Act that required him to register as a sex offender.   The DC Circuit affirmed Appellant’s convictions. The court held that the district court, in this case, did not abuse its discretion in admitting the expert’s testimony under Rule 702. The court explained that the district court justifiably concluded that concerns about the specific distances the expert drove should be considered by the jury in assessing the weight of the expert’s testimony and not by the court in its threshold admissibility determination. Further, the court explained that in light of the probative value of the expert’s testimony and the deference the Circuit Court affords district courts in making determinations under Rule 403, it cannot say that the district court abused its discretion in allowing the jury to hear from the expert. View "USA v. Charles Morgan, Jr." on Justia Law