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United States v. Esteves

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

December 27, 2018


          ORDER & REASONS


         Before the Court is defendant Jeremy Esteves's (“Esteves”) motion[1] to sever his trial from the trial of his capital codefendants Lilbear George (“George”), Curtis Johnson, Jr. (“Johnson”), and Chukwudi Ofomata (“Ofomata”). Esteves argues that a joint trial with his capital codefendants will cause him prejudice, warranting a severance. In the alternative, Esteves argues that the Court should employ two juries at the joint trial: one death-qualified jury and a separate jury for the non-capital defendants.[2] For the following reasons, the motion is denied.


         This case arises out of an armored truck robbery and the murder of Hector Trochez, which occurred on December 18, 2013. On November 9, 2017, a grand jury returned a four-count superseding indictment against defendants George, Esteves, Johnson, Ofomata, Robert Brumfield, III (“Brumfield”), and Jasmine Theophile.[3]

         Esteves and four of his codefendants were charged in three of the four counts set forth in the superseding indictment, one of which alleges a conspiracy.[4]Specifically, the superseding indictment charges Esteves, George, Ofomata, Johnson, and Brumfield with conspiring to obstruct, delay, and affect commerce by robbery (otherwise known as a Hobbs Act robbery); aiding and abetting one another to commit a Hobbs Act robbery; and aiding and abetting one another to knowingly use, carry, brandish, and discharge firearms during and in relation to crimes of violence and, in the course thereof, causing the death of Hector Trochez through the use of firearms.[5]


         “It is the rule, not the exception, ‘that persons indicted together should be tried together, especially in conspiracy cases.'” United States v. Thomas, 627 F.3d 146, 156 (5th Cir. 2010) (quoting United States v. Pofahl, 990 F.2d 1456, 1483 (5th Cir. 1993)).

         Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 8(b) states,

The indictment or information may charge 2 or more defendants if they are alleged to have participated in the same act or transaction or in the same series of acts or transactions, constituting an offense or offenses. The defendants may be charged in one or more counts together or separately. All defendants need not be charged in each count.

         “There is a preference in the federal system for joint trials of defendants who are indicted together. Joint trials ‘play a vital role in the criminal justice system.'” Zafiro v. United States, 506 U.S. 534, 537 (1993) (quoting Richardson v. Marsh, 481 U.S. 200, 209 (1987)).

         However, if a joint trial would cause prejudice to a defendant, the court may sever the defendants' trial. Fed. R. Crim. P. 14(a). “[W]hen defendants properly have been joined under Rule 8(b), a district court should grant a severance under Rule 14 only if there is a serious risk that a joint trial would compromise a specific trial right of one of the defendants, or prevent the jury from making a reliable judgment about guilt or innocence.” Zafiro, 506 U.S. at 539. The moving defendant bears the burden of proving that prejudice will result if the district court does not grant a severance. See Thomas, 627 F.3d at 156-57.

         “It is well settled that defendants are not entitled to severance merely because they may have a better chance of acquittal in separate trials.” Zafiro, 506 U.S. at 540. The Fifth Circuit has “held that the mere presence of a spillover effect does not ordinarily warrant severance.” Pofahl, 990 F.2d at 1483 (citing United States v. Rocha, 916 F.2d 219, 228 (5th Cir. 1990)). However, “[w]hen many defendants are tried together in a complex case and they have markedly different degrees of culpability, this risk of prejudice is heightened.” Zafiro, 506 U.S. at 539. Even so, “less drastic measures, such as limiting instructions, often will suffice to cure any risk of prejudice.” United States v. McRae, 702 F.3d 806, 823 (5th Cir. 2012) (quoting Zafiro, 506 539).

         Esteves argues that he will be prejudiced by a joint trial with his capital codefendants and, therefore, his trial should be severed because (1) a death-qualified jury is more conviction-prone, (2) Esteves will be judged by the higher culpability of his codefendants, (3) case management, specifically the process of voir dire, supports severance, and (4) Esteves is entitled to a speedy trial, which will be delayed if the Court grants Ofomata's motion to continue the trial.[6]


         Impaneling a death-qualified jury does not entitle Esteves to a severance. The Sixth Amendment gives a defendant the right “to have his guilt or innocence determined by an impartial jury selected from a representative cross-section of the community.” Lockhart v. McCree, 476 U.S. 162, 167 (1986). “‘To establish a prima facie violation' of the fair cross-section requirement, a defendant must show among other matters, ‘that the group alleged to be excluded is a distinctive group in the community.'” United States v. Simpson, 645 F.3d 300, 312 (5th Cir. 2011) (quoting United States v. Williams, 264 F.3d 561, 568 (5th Cir. 2011)).

Prospective jurors come from many different backgrounds, and have many different attitudes and predispositions. But the Constitution presupposes that a jury selected from a fair cross section of the community is impartial, regardless of the mix of individual viewpoints actually represented on the jury, so long as the jurors can conscientiously and properly carry out their sworn duty to apply the law to the facts of the particular case.

Lockhart, 476 U.S. at 183-84.

         In Witherspoon v. State of Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968), the Supreme Court held that the government may exclude from a jury those veniremen who made it clear they would never vote to impose the death penalty, but the government cannot exclude “veniremen for cause simply because they voiced general objections to the death penalty or expressed conscientious or religious scruples against its infliction.” Witherspoon, 391 U.S. at 514. “[T]hose who firmly believe that the death penalty is unjust may nevertheless serve as jurors in capital cases so long as they state clearly that they are willing to temporarily set aside their own beliefs in deference to the rule of law.” Lockhart, 476 U.S. at 176. However, “Witherspoon-excludables”-“those who cannot and will not conscientiously obey the law with respect to one of the issues in a capital case”-do not make up a distinctive group for fair cross-section purposes, and, therefore, “‘death-qualification' does not violate the fair cross-section requirement.” Id. at 176-77.

         This principle likewise applies in a joint trial of capital and non-capital defendants:

Where, as here, one of the joined defendants is a capital defendant and the capital-sentencing scheme requires the use of the same jury for the guilt and penalty phases of the capital defendant's trial, the interest in this scheme, which the Court recognized as significant in [Lockhart v. McCree], coupled with the [government's] interest in a joint ...

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