In Caldwell v. United States, No. 19-15024 (Aug. 16, 2023) (William Pryor, Jill Pryor, Coogler (N.D. Ala.), a consolidated appeal, the Court vacated one of Mr. Caldwell’s convictions and his sentence due to an intervening precedent, but otherwise affirmed the convictions and sentences of the other defendants.
Defendants–alleged members of the Gangster Disciples gang–were charged with conspiring to conduct and participate directly and indirectly in the conduct of the Gangster Disciples through a pattern of racketeering activity, in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”), 18 U.S.C. 1962(c). The defendants were also charged with the enhanced sentencing provision of the Act, for allegedly joining and remaining in the conspiracy, knowing and agreeing that members of the enterprise engaged in acts involving murder, in violation of O.C.G. 16-5-1. They raised a number of challenges on appeal.
First, they challenged the district court’s denial of their motion to show prospective jurors a video on unconscious bias prepared by the district court for the Western District of Washington as well as proposed voir dire questions regarding the same. The Court found no abuse of discretion by the district court.
Second, they challenged the district court’s denial of their motion to admit the testimony of a professor of social work as an expert witness on the structure of the Gangster Disciples. The court denied the motion as untimely and because the explanation of the proffered testimony was inadequate under Fed. R. Crim. P. 16(b)(1)(C). The court again denied a renewed motion after the prosecution introduced nonexpert testimony about the structure of the Gangster Disciples. The Court again found no abuse of discretion by the district court.
Third, the defendants challenged the district court’s order that they be secured with ankle restraints throughout the trial. The Court found no violation of the defendant’s rights because the restraints were not visible to the jury and no defendant alleged that he lacked access to counsel.
Fourth, the defendants challenged the district court’s order allowing the prosecution to bring firearms to court as evidence and store them in boxes next to counsel table. Defendants had requested that the boxes be stored outside the jury’s sight in order to maintain their presumption of innocence. The Court found no abuse of discretion by the district court.
Fifth, defendants challenged the district court’s questioning of a prosecution witness to determine whether DeKalb County was located within the Northern District of Georgia. Defendants argued that such questioning by the judge deprived them of a fair trial by a neutral arbiter. The Court disagreed.
Sixth, the defendants challenged the district court’s denial of a motion to suppress the fruits of the extension of the wiretap on one of the Gangster Disciples member’s phones. Defendants argued that the extension was unlawful because the underlying supporting affidavit was incomplete and the application did not provide the court with statutorily mandated information. More specifically, defendants argued that law enforcement failed to provide the required “full and complete statement as to whether or not other investigative procedures have been tried and failed or why they reasonably appear to be unlikely to succeed if tried or to be too dangerous,” because his extension application did not discuss the seven human sources mentioned in the initial application. The Court affirmed the district court, finding that it properly applied Franks and the good-faith exception to the motion to suppress.
Seventh, the defendants challenged the verdict form. The verdict form asked whether each defendant was guilty of “Count One of the indictment charging RICO conspiracy” and whether “the RICO conspiracy involve[d] murder.” Defendants argued that the verdict form should have specified that “to find the Enhanced sentence for murder,” the jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt that “the Defendants joined and remained in the RICO conspiracy charged in Count One knowing and agreeing that members of the enterprise engaged in acts involving murder.” The Court reviewed this challenge for plain error because it was not preserved at trial, and found none.
Eighth, and relatedly, the defendants objected to the recommendation in the PSI that they receive enhanced sentences under RICO, which provides for a maximum sentence of life imprisonment instead of only 20 years if “the violation is based on a racketeering activity for which the maximum penalty includes life imprisonment.” The defendants argued that the verdict form question whether “the RICO conspiracy involve[d] murder” asked the jury whether the conspiracy involved either actual murder or inchoate versions of that offense. Because the jury verdict did not distinguish between actual murder, which can support a life sentence under Georgia law, and inchoate forms of murder, which cannot, they argued that their sentences could not exceed 20 years. They styled their objection as an argument that a sentence based on the finding of actual Georgia-law murder would violate the Sixth Amendment, citing to Apprendi.
The Court found no violation of Apprendi. It reasoned that the defendants’ argument involved an unpreserved objection to the verdict form and jury instructions masquerading as an Apprendi challenge. In the Court’s view, the defendants’ argument that the district court misread the jury verdict and then applied the wrong statutory punishment based on that mistake, did not implicate Apprendi. The district court correctly concluded that the jury found that the conspiracy involved actual murder, as required for the enhanced sentencing provision.
Ninth, the individual defendants raised various challenges to their individual sentences and to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting their convictions, which the Court denied.
Finally, the Court vacated Mr. Caldwell’s conviction for using a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence because it was based upon attempted Hobbs Act robbery. Applying Taylor, the Court concluded that said conviction must be vacated. The Court remanded for the district court to resentence Mr. Caldwell for his remaining counts of conviction.