Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
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The case involves Terril Edwards, who was convicted in 2008 on three counts: possession with intent to distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine, carrying a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime, and possession of a firearm by a felon. Based on Edwards’s criminal history, the District Court determined that the statutory minimum for the Drug Trafficking Charge was life imprisonment. In 2011, Edwards filed a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence, which the District Court denied. In 2019, following the passage of the First Step Act of 2018, Edwards filed a motion for resentencing. The District Court granted the motion and resentenced Edwards to a total of 240 months.Edwards's conviction and sentence were affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In 2020, Edwards filed a second motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Rehaif v. United States. The District Court transferred the petition to the Third Circuit to determine whether it could consider the successive petition.The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that Edwards's second motion was a second or successive motion because a First Step Act resentencing is unrelated to the validity of the judgment it amends and thus does not result in a new, intervening judgment under Magwood. The court also held that Edwards had not satisfied the requirements of § 2255(h) because Rehaif did not announce a “new rule of constitutional law” made retroactive to cases on collateral review by the Supreme Court. Finally, the court held that Edwards could not challenge his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2241, as the Supreme Court had foreclosed this possibility in Jones v. Hendrix. As a result, the court denied Edwards's requests. View "In re Edwards" on Justia Law

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The case involves Carlos Hill, who was convicted in 2013 for possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), a law that makes it illegal for a person convicted of a crime punishable by more than a year in prison to possess a firearm. In 2019, Hill sought to challenge his conviction following the Supreme Court's decision in Rehaif v. United States, which overturned previous interpretations of § 922(g)(1) and held that the government must prove that the person knew they belonged to the prohibited group. Hill requested the appointment of counsel to pursue his Rehaif claim in a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. The District Court denied his request, ruling that Hill's § 2255 motion was second or successive and that he did not qualify for relief under Rehaif.The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit disagreed with the District Court's ruling. The appellate court determined that Hill's § 2255 motion was not second or successive, and that Rehaif announced a new substantive rule that is retroactive for non-successive § 2255 motions. The court concluded that the District Court's order was incorrect and vacated it, remanding the case for further proceedings. The appellate court also issued a certificate of appealability for Hill's appeal, finding that jurists of reason would find it debatable whether Hill has stated a valid constitutional claim and whether the District Court was correct in its procedural ruling. View "United States v. Hill" on Justia Law

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This case revolves around Harvey Robinson, who was convicted of multiple crimes including three counts of first-degree murder. The prosecution sought the death penalty for each of the murder counts, arguing that Robinson posed a future danger to society if he was ever released from prison. During sentencing, a juror asked the judge whether a life sentence would entail parole. The judge initially speculated that while current law doesn't permit parole, the law might change in the future. Later, the judge corrected his statement, firmly asserting that life imprisonment meant no parole.Robinson's case went through several layers of courts. During his appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's decision, arguing that the prosecution did not make an issue of Robinson's future dangerousness and there was no error in the trial court's instruction. The state courts and a federal district court denied him collateral relief.The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the lower court's ruling. The court noted that the judge's final instruction to the jury made it clear that Robinson, if sentenced to life imprisonment, would not be eligible for parole. The court concluded that even if the judge's initial speculation about parole had been problematic, his subsequent correction absolved any error. The court also concluded that the prosecution had indeed raised the issue of Robinson's future dangerousness, contrary to the state court's ruling. Thus, the court upheld the denial of habeas corpus. View "Robinson v. Secretary, Pennsylvania Department Of Corrections" on Justia Law

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This case involves a criminal defendant, William Barksdale, who was denied the right to testify in his own defense during a supervised release revocation hearing. Barksdale had previously pled guilty to conspiring to commit wire fraud, was sentenced to twenty months in prison and five years' supervised release. Near the end of his supervised release, his probation officer reported ten potential violations of his release terms to the District Court. During the revocation hearing, Barksdale repeatedly expressed his desire to testify, but the judge denied his request, stating that Barksdale had chosen not to testify. The judge then found Barksdale guilty of nine release violations and sentenced him to thirty months in prison.Barksdale appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, arguing that the District Court denied him his right to testify in his own defense. The Circuit Court reviewed the District Court's findings of fact for clear error, its legal rulings de novo, and its ultimate decision to revoke supervised release for abuse of discretion.The Circuit Court found that on the record before them, the District Court judge had erred in denying Barksdale his right to testify. The Court ruled that nowhere on the record did Barksdale himself waive that right, and thus he was denied his constitutional right to testify. The government was then required to prove that this error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, which they failed to do. The Court noted that even if Barksdale's testimony could have reduced his sentence only slightly, that is enough to make the error harmful.Finally, despite Barksdale's request for a new judge on remand, the Circuit Court found no evidence of bias or appearance of bias from the District Court judge. Therefore, the case was remanded to the same judge for a new revocation hearing. View "United States v. Barksdale" on Justia Law

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The case revolves around a defendant, Davit Davitashvili, who was charged with violating federal law by transmitting threats to injure his ex-wife, Olga Volosevich, and other unnamed individuals. This was after a long history of abusive behavior towards Volosevich, culminating in threatening messages sent to her via the messaging app Viber. Davitashvili appealed his conviction, arguing that his threats towards unnamed individuals were constitutionally protected speech.The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit disagreed with Davitashvili's claim. It noted that Davitashvili's threats towards "others" were not protected speech under the First Amendment, as they targeted particular individuals, supporting a conviction. The court pointed out that the jury instructions required the jury to find that Davitashvili’s communication threatened to "injure a person or a group of people," which accurately reflected the relevant federal law.As for the defendant's argument that his conviction was based on an invalid theory (threatening unspecified "others"), the court held that the jury likely would have convicted Davitashvili based on his threats to Volosevich alone, even if the "kill others" theory was excluded. The court concluded that the trial was error-free and affirmed the judgment of conviction. View "USA v. Davitashvili" on Justia Law

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The case arose from appellant Khamal Fooks' claim that his attorney misled him about the parole eligibility related to his plea agreement. Fooks had pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, conspiracy, and carrying an unlicensed gun in a Pennsylvania state court. He later alleged that his lawyer incorrectly assured him he would be eligible for parole after ten years, when in reality, he had to serve at least twenty. His allegations, if true, would demonstrate that his lawyer’s advice was ineffective.Both the state and the federal district courts dismissed his claims without providing an opportunity for an evidentiary hearing. Fooks then appealed this decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The Circuit Court found that Fooks' allegations, if proven, would indeed establish ineffective assistance of counsel, thereby warranting habeas relief.The Circuit Court held that the district court erred in not affording Fooks an evidentiary hearing to substantiate his allegations. The court emphasized the importance of giving petitioners a fair chance to prove their allegations and remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing. The court did not rule on Fooks' entitlement to relief, instead emphasizing the need for a fair opportunity to present evidence supporting his claims. View "Khamal Fooks v. Superintendent Smithfield SCI" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit heard an appeal from Mustafa Alowemer, a Syrian refugee living in the U.S. who had become a radical Islamist and plotted to bomb a Nigerian-American church in Pittsburgh. Alowemer, an ISIS supporter, had been found guilty of attempting to materially support a terrorist group in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2339B(a)(1). At sentencing, the District Court applied a terrorism enhancement, concluding that Alowemer's attempted attack was intended to retaliate against the U.S. and Nigerian governments for their actions against ISIS. This resulted in a twelve-level increase in his sentence, leading to a prison term of over seventeen years.Alowemer appealed, arguing that the terrorism enhancement was improperly applied. The Court of Appeals reviewed the District Court's application of the sentencing enhancement for abuse of discretion. It found that Alowemer had intended to retaliate against government conduct, as evidenced by his statements about avenging his "ISIS brothers" in Nigeria and his references to U.S. forces as invaders in the Middle East.Alowemer also argued that the District Court did not adequately consider his childhood trauma and poor mental health. The Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that the District Court had thoroughly examined the evidence and found that while Alowemer's mental health issues may have explained his radicalization, his actions were still intentional, knowing, and voluntary.Therefore, the Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's decision, concluding that Alowemer's plot to bomb a church in retaliation for government action against ISIS triggered the terrorism enhancement and that his mental health issues did not undermine this intent. View "United States v. Alowemer" on Justia Law

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Claude P. Lacombe appealed the United States District Court for the District of Delaware's denial of habeas relief, arguing that the Delaware Supreme Court wrongfully denied his claims that the State breached its plea agreement and that his counsel was ineffective for failing to demand specific performance of the plea agreement. Lacombe had pleaded guilty to several counts, including second-degree murder, in exchange for the State's agreement to recommend a sentence of 22 years. Instead, Lacombe received a life sentence. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's denial of habeas relief. The Court held that even if the State breached its plea agreement and Lacombe's counsel was ineffective, any constitutional error was harmless under Brecht, Strickland, and Puckett v. United States, as Lacombe could not establish that he suffered "actual prejudice" as a result of the State's rhetoric and his counsel's failure to object. The court did not decide whether the State actually breached the plea agreement, citing that a failure to show either deficient performance or sufficient prejudice defeats an ineffectiveness claim. View "Lacombe v. Warden" on Justia Law

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In the case of Robert Wharton, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office conceded that Wharton's death sentence should be vacated without conducting a comprehensive investigation into evidence against Wharton’s habeas claim. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit determined that the office did not disclose key facts about the claim, leading the District Court to find misconduct and impose mild sanctions.Wharton had been sentenced to death for terrorizing and ultimately murdering a family over a disputed debt. On appeal, the Third Circuit ordered an evidentiary hearing on whether Wharton's counsel was ineffective for not investigating prison records or presenting evidence showing that Wharton had adjusted well to prison life. However, before this hearing could take place, the District Attorney’s Office filed a notice of concession. The District Court did not accept the concession and appointed the Pennsylvania Attorney General as amicus curiae to investigate Wharton’s prison adjustment.The court found that the District Attorney’s Office violated Rule 11(b)(3) by failing to investigate the facts of Wharton's case reasonably and by failing to communicate adequately with the victims' family. Consequently, the court ordered District Attorney Larry Krasner to apologize in writing to the victims' family members and to provide a "full, balanced explanation" of the facts when conceding federal habeas cases in the future. This case highlights the importance of conducting thorough investigations and maintaining honesty and forthrightness in court procedures. View "Wharton v. Graterford" on Justia Law

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In this case, the appellant, Robert Wharton, was convicted of murder in 1985, and after the jury found the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors, he was sentenced to death. After exhausting his state court options, Wharton petitioned in 2003 for a writ of habeas corpus in the District Court, claiming his lawyer was ineffective for failing to introduce his prison records as mitigation evidence during the penalty phase.The District Court denied his petition, finding that Wharton did not suffer any prejudice from his counsel’s failure to introduce the prison records. The Court reasoned that evidence of Wharton's positive adjustment to prison would have opened the door to negative behavior while in custody, most notably his repeated escape attempts.Wharton appealed, arguing that the District Court erred in finding that he failed to establish prejudice and that the case should be remanded for a new hearing before a different judge. However, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court's judgment, holding that there was not a reasonable probability that Wharton’s prison records would have caused a juror to change his or her sentencing vote given the compelling rebuttal evidence the prosecution would have presented. The Court of Appeals also rejected Wharton's argument that the District Court created an appearance of unfairness and partiality. View "Wharton v. Graterford" on Justia Law