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United States v. Chavez

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

July 2, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
v.
JESUS ALEJANDRO CHAVEZ, a/k/a Chuy, Defendant-Appellant. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
v.
OMAR DEJESUS CASTILLO, a/k/a Lil Payaso, a/k/a Lil Slow, Defendant-Appellant. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
v.
JOSE LOPEZ TORRES, a/k/a Grenas, a/k/a Peluca, a/k/a Medio Polvo, a/k/a Peluquin, a/k/a Jose Alejandro Donez, a/k/a Manuel Lopez Torres, Defendant-Appellant. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
v.
ALVIN GAITAN BENITEZ, a/k/a Pesadilla, a/k/a Lil Pesadilla, a/k/a Lil Tuner, a/k/a Tooner, a/k/a Lil Tunnel, Defendant-Appellant. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
v.
CHRISTIAN LEMUS CERNA, a/k/a Leopardo, a/k/a Bago, a/k/a Vago, a/k/a Gatito, a/k/a Christian Josue Lemus Alfaro, Defendant-Appellant. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
v.
MANUEL ERNESTO PAIZ GUEVARA, a/k/a Solitario, a/k/a Colita, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued: May 10, 2018

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, at Alexandria. Gerald Bruce Lee, District Judge. (1:14-cr-00306-GBL-2; 1:14-cr-00306-GBL-4; 1:14-cr-00306-GBL-5; 1:14-cr-00306-GBL-6; 1:14-cr-00306-GBL-8; 1:14-cr-00306-GBL-10)

         ARGUED:

          Jerome Patrick Aquino, Springfield, Virginia; Christopher Bryan Amolsch, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellants.

          Tobias Douglas Tobler, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Elita C. Amato, LAW OFFICE OF ELITA C. AMATO, Arlington, Virginia, for Appellant Jesus Chavez.

          Amy L. Austin, LAW OFFICE OF AMY L. AUSTIN, PLLC, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellant Alvin Benitez.

          Frank Salvato, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellant Christian Cerna.

          Jeffrey D. Zimmerman, JEFFREY ZIMMERMAN, PLLC, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellant Alvin Benitez.

          Robert L. Jenkins, Jr., BYNUM & JENKINS, PLLC, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellant Jose Torres.

          Katherine Martell, FIRST POINT LAW GROUP, PC, Fairfax, Virginia; Meredith M. Ralls, S&R LAW FIRM PLLC, Fairfax, Virginia, for Appellant Omar Castillo.

          William M. Chick, Jr., LAW OFFICES OF W. MICHAEL CHICK, JR., Fairfax, Virginia, for Appellant Manuel Guevara.

          Dana J. Boente, United States Attorney, Julia K. Martinez, Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellee.

          Before WILKINSON, MOTZ, and KING, Circuit Judges.

          WILKINSON, CIRCUIT JUDGE:

         After a seven-week jury trial, the six defendants in this case were each convicted of all the crimes with which they were charged, including violent crimes in aid of racketeering. All six appeal their convictions, raising a wide variety of alleged deficiencies in the trial, including Brady violations, failure to give certain jury instructions, mistaken evidentiary rulings, and basic complaints about having a joint trial, among others. As discussed below, we reject each of these challenges, and affirm the convictions.

         I.

         Jesus Alejandro Chavez, Alvin Benitez, Omar Castillo, Jose Torres, Christian Cerna, and Manuel Guevara are members of the MS-13 gang. This case arises out of a series of violent crimes committed by the gang during 2013 and 2014.

         In October 2013, defendant Torres and other MS-13 gang members attempted to murder "Peligroso," a fellow gang member who had broken MS-13's rules. Several days later, gang members including defendants Torres and Castillo murdered Nelson Omar Quintanilla Trujillo, an MS-13 member who was suspected of being a government informant. Trujillo was then buried in a shallow hole in a park, with gang members later returning to move and rebury his body. In March 2014, defendants Castillo, Cerna, Benitez, and Guevara murdered Gerson Adoni Martinez Aguilar for breaking MS-13 rules. Finally, on June 19, 2014, defendant Chavez murdered Julio Urrutia for disrespecting MS-13.

         In June 2015, a grand jury indicted the six appellants and seven other members of MS-13 for their involvement in these crimes. Among other charges, each defendant was indicted for either murder in aid of racketeering or conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering. The racketeering enterprise, as alleged in the indictment, is the MS-13 organization. Six of the indicted individuals pleaded guilty, while the other seven proceeded to trial.[*] Five of those who pleaded guilty cooperated with the government during the prosecution and at trial.

         Following a seven-week trial, a jury found each defendant guilty of each charge against him. After sentencing, the defendants filed this appeal, alleging that the government violated its duties under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), and Napue v. Illinois, 360 U.S. 264 (1959). Certain defendants also challenge their convictions based on alleged deficiencies in the jury instructions, erroneous evidentiary rulings, failure to grant severance motions, violations of statutory rights to counsel, and insufficient evidence. Two defendants also challenge their sentences on constitutional grounds. We address each of these challenges in turn.

         II.

         The defendants first allege that the government violated its Brady and Napue duties. Under Brady, the "suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment." 373 U.S. at 87. Relatedly, under Napue, the government "may not knowingly use false evidence, including false testimony, to obtain a tainted conviction" or "allow[] it to go uncorrected when it appears." 360 U.S. at 269. The defendants assert that the government breached each of these duties in its treatment of the testimony of Junior, an MS-13 member turned government cooperator.

         A.

         Before addressing the defendants' arguments, additional background on Junior's testimony and immigration proceedings is necessary. During the government's investigation of MS-13, Junior infiltrated the defendants' "clique" within MS-13, surreptitiously recorded telephone calls with the defendants, and was eventually led by one of the defendants to the bodies of two murder victims. At trial, Junior testified for the government, explaining the contents of the recorded phone calls and helping to establish the validity of the forensic evidence obtained from the victims' bodies. Through his cooperation, Junior gained significant immigration benefits, including deferred action to allow him to stay in the United States to continue his work with the FBI. Junior also applied for and received a green card prior to trial in this case. While the green card was largely obtained through regular immigration proceedings rather than through prosecutorial intervention, the FBI did write a letter to immigration authorities on his behalf.

         These immigration benefits were extensively discussed at trial. At one point, the prosecution asked Junior, "Did the FBI have any involvement in your attempt to get the green card?" J.A. 3682. Junior responded that the FBI wrote a letter, but that "the letter was returned" and the immigration judge "didn't get the letter." J.A. 3683. During cross-examination, Junior acknowledged that in fact he did "show a letter to the judge when [he] was in front of the judge" and the FBI's letter was thus ultimately delivered by Junior personally. J.A. 4137-38.

         Following direct examination of Junior but before the cross-examination, defense counsel requested a subpoena duces tecum to obtain Junior's immigration documents. Because counsel acknowledged that his request was based solely on "a feeling . . . that there's something in [the immigration documents] that goes to truthfulness," J.A. 3830, the district court denied the request. After the trial, the defendants moved for a new trial based on the government's alleged failure to disclose exculpatory ...


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