Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

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Defendant appealed the trial court's denial of his petition under Penal Code section 1170.95 for resentencing on his murder conviction. Defendant was convicted by a jury of murder in 2013 based on his involvement in an incident where a cohort stabbed the victim.The Court of Appeal agreed with defendant that the trial court incorrectly considered the case as if it involved felony murder, but nevertheless affirmed because the trial court's finding regarding defendant's involvement in the murder was both supported by the evidence and sufficient to justify denying his petition. In this case, a reasonable jury could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt on the basis of the evidence that defendant acted with express malice, directly aiding and abetting the murder. Therefore, the trial court's error was harmless, because defendant could still be convicted of murder under the current Penal Code section 188. View "People v. Duke" on Justia Law

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In 1990, Johnson, who is schizophrenic, was convicted of assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury. He served nine years in prison before being paroled as a mentally disordered offender (MDO). In 2000, he was civilly committed to Napa State Hospital under the MDO Act. He was twice released as an outpatient (2004-2008, and 2008-2014) but was returned to the hospital each time after he went absent without leave. Following several commitment extensions, in 2019, the trial court ordered Johnson’s MDO commitment extended for one year. Johnson was 69 years old.The court of appeal reversed, finding that the order was not supported by substantial evidence. The trial court’s only rationale for finding “that by reason of [his] severe mental health disorder, [Johnson] represents a substantial danger of physical harm to others,” was that “it does appear that the evidence shows that a high probability of decompression [sic] will occur which could result in a serious threat of substantial physical harm to others, harm to himself, and because of misperceptions and decompensation, he can be a substantial danger, and that he does not voluntarily follow his treatment plan.” The sole evidence of dangerousness was from decades earlier, with only friendly and nonconfrontational behavior ever since, even while Johnson was AWOL, off of his medications, and decompensating. View "People v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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The Fifth Circuit affirmed defendant's 120 month sentence imposed after she was convicted of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.The court held that defendant failed to show that the district court imposed an unconstitutional trial penalty on her at sentencing and rejected her claim that she was treated more harshly than her co-conspirators because she chose to go to trial rather than to plead guilty. In this case, her only direct co-conspirator was charged with different crimes that carried different statutory maximum sentences. The court also held that defendant's sentence was not procedurally unreasonable where the district court did not abuse its discretion by improperly presuming the Guidelines range to be reasonable; the district court considered the need to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities; and defendant failed to show a reasonable probability that an explanation by the district court for running the sentences consecutively would have changed her total punishment. Finally, the court held that defendant's sentence was not substantively unreasonable and upheld the district court's restitution order, rejecting procedural and constitutional challenges. View "United States v. Gozes-Wagner" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's denial of a habeas corpus petition challenging petitioner's first-degree murder conviction and remanded with instructions to conditionally grant the writ. In this case, the prosecutor told the jury at the end of his closing-argument rebuttal that the presumption of innocence no longer applied.The panel applied petitioner's claim pursuant to Darden v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 168 (1986), de novo, holding that the prosecutor's repeated statements, endorsed by the trial judge, that the presumption of innocence no longer applied violated due process under Darden. The panel stated that a holding of a due process violation under Darden necessarily entails a conclusion that the prosecutor's misstatements of the law were prejudicial. The panel also held that the Court of Appeal unreasonably concluded under Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967), that the prosecutor’s misstatements of the law were harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. View "Ford v. Peery" on Justia Law

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Alston received a sentencing enhancement under U.S.S.G. 4B1.1 for his prior convictions under Ohio Revised Code 2925.03(A)(1), which criminalizes offers to sell drugs. Alston’s initial Guidelines range was 188-235 months. The parties jointly requested a two-level variance that would reduce his range to 151-188 months. The district court sentenced Alston to 169 months’ imprisonment.The Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded the sentence. Since 2019, the Sixth Circuit has held that attempt crimes such as offers to sell do not qualify for the 4B1.1 career-offender enhancement. The district court appears to have applied the career-offender enhancement to Alston based on his prior drug-trafficking convictions under Ohio law prohibiting persons from “[s]ell[ing] or offer[ing] to sell a controlled substance or a controlled substance analog.” Statutes that criminalize offers to sell controlled substances are too broad to categorically qualify as predicate controlled substance offenses under 4B1.2. View "United States v. Alston" on Justia Law

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The First Circuit vacated the district court's judgment denying Defendant's motion to vacate his 18 U.S.C. 924(c) conviction and to resentence him without a career offender enhancement, holding that because Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. 591 (2015) established that the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines' residual clause before United States v. Booker, 54 U.S. 220 (2005), was decided was too vague to constitutionally enhance a defendant's sentence, Defendant's claims were timely.Defendant was convicted under section 924(c). The judge classified Defendant as a career offender under section 4B1.1 of the guidelines. Thereafter, the Supreme Court decided Booker, which held that the mandatory Guidelines system was unconstitutional. Thereafter, the Supreme Court announced a new rule of law in Johnson that imposing an increased sentence under the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act is unconstitutionally vague. Defendant moved to vacate his conviction and sentence, arguing that the Court's reasoning in Johnson made similar residual clauses in section 942(c) and section 4B1.2(a) unconstitutionally vague as well. The district court denied the motion. The First Circuit vacated the judgment, holding (1) Johnson dictates that 4B1.2(a)'s residual clause is unconstitutionally vague; and (2) as a result, Defendant asserted the same right newly recognized in Johnson, making his petition timely. View "Shea v. United States" on Justia Law

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Andre Bridgewater was tried by jury and convicted of murder and other crimes in connection with the fatal shooting of Myron Short. Bridgewater appealed, contending that the evidence was insufficient to sustain his convictions and that the trial court erred when it admitted the prior inconsistent statements of a witness. Finding no error, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed. View "Bridgewater v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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James Eggleston was tried by jury and convicted of felony murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony in connection with Richard Byrd’s death. Following the denial of his motion for new trial, Eggleston appealed, contending only that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to sustain his convictions. Because the evidence was sufficient, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed. View "Eggleston v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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Donald Griffin was convicted by jury of felony murder in connection with the stabbing death of Truitt Cheeley. Griffin appealed the denial of his motion for a new trial, contending that the trial court erred in admitting into evidence witness testimony about Griffin’s racism and Griffin’s custodial statement. Griffin also claimed his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective. Furthermore, Griffin contended the trial court erred in denying his request to cross-examine a witness who testified as to Cheeley’s reputation for peacefulness with evidence that Cheeley had been convicted of a crime of violence. Finding no reversible error, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed. View "Griffin v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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Todd Welch was convicted by jury of murder and other crimes in connection with the shooting death of Christopher Brown and the aggravated assault of Darrell Agee. Welch contended on appeal that the trial court erred by improperly admitting hearsay evidence under the forfeiture-by-wrongdoing exception to the rule against hearsay, and erred by failing to give his requested jury instruction on grave suspicion. After review, the Georgia Supreme Court concluded the arguments Welch raised were without merit. However, the Court found it had to vacate Welch’s sentences as to Counts 10 and 20 of his indictment in order to correct sentencing errors that harmed him. View "Welch v. Georgia" on Justia Law