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United States v. Wilson

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Huntington Division

September 19, 2019




         Pending before the Court is Defendant Justin Michael Wilson’s Motion for a New Trial. ECF No. 87. For the following reasons, the Court DENIES the motion.



         On July 10, 2018, Defendant was charged in a five-count Indictment. ECF No. 1. Count One charged Defendant with Carjacking in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2119. Count Two charged him with Using, Carrying, or Brandishing a Firearm during and in relation to a Crime of Violence in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A) and (B)(ii). Count Three charged him with Possession of a Firearm not Registered in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record in violation of 26 U.S.C. §§ 5861(d) and 5871. Count Four charged him with Possessing a Stolen Firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(j) and 924(a)(2). Finally, Count Five charged him with Possession of a Machinegun in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(o) and 924(a)(2).[1] On May 6, 2019, Defendant pled guilty without an agreement to Counts Three and Five. After waiving his right to a jury trial, Defendant proceeded to a one-day bench trial on the remaining counts on May 7, 2019.

         Prior to the start of the bench trial, the United States Attorney’s Office informed the Court, Defendant, and his counsel that one of its witnesses, Frenchesca Pennington, admitted for the first time that morning that she provided a false statement about Defendant stealing the machinegun. As a result, the United States made an oral motion to dismiss Count Four. The Court granted the motion, and the bench trial proceeded on Count One for Carjacking and Count Two for Using, Carrying, or Brandishing a Firearm during and in relation to a Crime of Violence.

         At the bench trial, the United States introduced evidence that on January 11, 2018, Defendant went on a crime spree spanning four counties in West Virginia. The day began with Defendant stealing a Ford Expedition in Jackson County.[2] He then traveled to Mason County and acquired an illegal AR-15 machinegun from Ms. Pennington. From there, Defendant drove to Kanawha County, where he was observed in the stolen Expedition by Chief Deputy Greg Young of the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Department. A police chase ensued, with Defendant driving off the road and parallel to railroad tracks at approximately 30 to 40 miles per hour. As the area along the tracks was covered with large gravel, Chief Deputy Young was unable to keep up, and Defendant ultimately jumped the tracks and got away.

         After evading Chief Deputy Young, Defendant made it to Interstate 64 and traveled westbound to Putnam County, stopping at an Advance Auto Parts in the Liberty Square shopping plaza just off the Teays Valley exit. Justin Clark testified that he was working on his mother’s truck near the side of the Advance Auto Parts’ building when Defendant approached him. Mr. Clark said that Defendant asked him if he wanted to get rid of the truck, but Mr. Clark responded “no” because it was his not his. Defendant then opened the driver’s side door of the truck and looked inside. Mr. Clark, who was working underneath the truck, stood up, pulled the door shut, and stood in front of him. According to Mr. Clark, Defendant initially was friendly, but the conversation then took a more serious tone. Defendant told him that he was an ex-Marine, had a fully automatic weapon, and was running from the law. Defendant demanded the key from Mr. Clark, but Mr. Clark pretended he did not have it and said the key were inside the store on the counter. Defendant also asked for Mr. Clark’s phone, but Mr. Clark said no. Mr. Clark then went inside the store purportedly to get the key. Defendant told him not to call the police because he did not “want to have to shoot this place up. Just get me the key.” Tr. 74, ECF No. 82. Mr. Clark said he entered the store through the side, and he had the manager lock the door. Mr. Clark called 911. Mr. Clark said he was in the store for about two minutes when Defendant drove the Expedition around the front of the building.

         Defendant drove to another part of the shopping plaza where he encountered Matt Francisco and John Thaxton. Messrs. Francisco and Thaxton worked for the Putnam Public Service District (PSD) and were on a lunch break. Mr. Thaxton was eating inside a PSD truck, while Mr. Francisco was smoking outside the truck. When Defendant drove up, he stopped in front of them and blocked the road.

         Mr. Francisco testified that Defendant got out of the Expedition and told them “it was our lucky day.” Id. at 80. Mr. Francisco said Defendant turned as if he was going to get in his vehicle but, instead, he turned back around and faced him with the AR in his hands. Mr. Francisco testified that Defendant said they had “two choices. We could either help him unload the stuff out of [Defendant’s] vehicle and put it in our work truck, or we could die.” Id. at 82.

         Given Defendant’s command, Mr. Francisco said he began taking the things out of the Expedition and putting them in the PSD truck. While he and Mr. Thaxton were moving the items, he said Defendant was rummaging around on the passenger side of the vehicle. Mr. Francisco said he thought they were finished when they had moved the things from the back seat, but Defendant then opened the hatchback, snapped his fingers, and motioned with the gun for them to move the things out of the back. Mr. Francisco estimated that it took three or four minutes to move all the items.

         Defendant then asked where the keys were, and Mr. Francisco told him they were in the ignition. However, Mr. Francisco testified he thinks Defendant misunderstood him because Defendant then “stood up and raised his voice a little bit and said, where are the keys to the vehicle? Do I need to come and get them or are you going to give them to me?” Id. at 85. Although Mr. Francisco testified at the bench trial he could not recall where the gun was when Defendant asked for the keys, he told the grand jury Defendant raised the gun to his [Mr. Francisco’s] chest.[3] Mr. Francisco testified that he believed he was being threatened by Defendant during the encounter, and he fully complied with Defendant’s demands because he did not want to die.

         Mr. Thaxton also testified at the bench trial. Mr. Thaxton similarly said that, when Defendant stopped, he told them it was their “lucky day and proceeded to pull an AR out and point it at [them] and tell [them] that [they were] going to help him unload the stuff out of the SUV into [the PSD] truck or he was going to kill [them].” Id. at 20. Mr. Thaxton testified that he and Mr. Francisco then started moving the items from the Expedition to the PSD truck. He said Defendant put the machinegun in the front seat of the Expedition while he helped them move some of the things. Mr. Thaxton said Defendant offered him a beer, and he told him “he had just blowed all of the state troopers out of the water in Charleston.” Id. at 26. After the backseat was emptied, Defendant picked the machinegun back up, went to the back of the vehicle and waived it, motioning for them to come to the back and unload the remainder of the things.

         Mr. Thaxton said that, after they finished moving the things, Defendant put the machinegun down in the passenger side of the PSD truck, stood beside the passenger side door, and asked for the keys. Although Mr. Francisco told him the keys were in the ignition, Mr. Thaxton also stated Defendant must have misunderstood or did not hear him because “he kind of stepped up and forcefully said, are you going to give them to me or am I going to have to take them?” Id. at 31. When asked what he meant when he said Defendant “stepped up,” Mr. Thaxton explained Defendant “stepped toward [them] and kind of, ah, swelled up kind of like he was going to – you know, squared up with us or – you know,” like he was ready to get in a fight, and he spoke in a “stern” voice. Id. at 31-32. At that point, Mr. Thaxton said Mr. Francisco repeated that the keys were in the ignition. Mr. Thaxton said he believed that if they did not give Defendant the keys, he “was going to take them any way he had to.” Id. at 32.

         Once Defendant realized the keys were in the truck, Mr. Thaxton testified that Defendant got in the truck. Although he was scared, Mr. Thaxton said he walked up to the side of the truck and asked for his wallet and Mr. Francisco’s phone. Defendant replied “no problem. I’m not a thief” and gave him the items. Id. at 33. Defendant then pulled away. The police arrived right after Defendant left, and Mr. Thaxton told the officer that he just stole the truck.

         At the bench trial, the United States also called West Virginia State Police Officer Justin Garren to testify. Trooper Garren stated he received a BOLO[4] about the stolen Expedition. He said he was looking for it on Interstate 64, when he received information about an attempted armed carjacking at the Liberty Square shopping plaza, which was about one mile from where he was. As Trooper Garren was driving to the scene, he received information about a second possible carjacking. When he arrived, he noticed a truck pulling away and a man waving him down and pointing toward the truck. Trooper ...

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