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United States v. Wiggins

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

December 15, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
D-1, JAMES WIGGINS, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT OF ACQUITTAL [58]

          STEPHEN J. MURPHY, III UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         After three days of trial, a jury found Defendant James Wiggins guilty of aiding and abetting a carjacking, but not guilty of using a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence. ECF 51. Wiggins now moves under Rules 29 and 33 for a judgment of acquittal, or in the alternative, for a new trial. The Court has reviewed the briefs and finds that a hearing is unnecessary. For the reasons below, the Court will deny Wiggins's motion.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Acquittal Under Rule 29

         Wiggins principally moves under Rule 29(c)(1)(2) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, a rule that permits a court to set aside a guilty verdict and enter an acquittal. In reviewing a motion under the rule, a court must ask "whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." United States v. Conatser, 514 F.3d 508, 518 (6th Cir. 2008) (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979)). The Court does not "weigh the evidence, assess the credibility of the witnesses, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the jury, " but rather, draws every reasonable inference in favor of the jury's verdict. Id. (citations omitted).

         The elements of aiding and abetting car-jacking are: (1) the offense of carjacking was committed by some person; (2) an act by the defendant that contributed to the commission of the carjacking; and (3) the defendant intended to aid in the commission of the carjacking. 18 U.S.C. §§ 2, 2119(1); United States v. Bronzino, 598 F.3d 276, 279 (6th Cir. 2010). As a federal crime, the car must have been "transported, shipped, or received in interstate or foreign commerce[.]" 18 U.S.C. § 2119. Wiggins does not contest that someone indeed committed a carjacking, but he argues that there was insufficient evidence that the car traveled in interstate commerce and that the two aiding-and-abetting elements were not met as to him.

         The details of the carjacking came into focus through the testimony of several witnesses. The complainant, Reginald Carr, testified that two men had originally approached him in his car, ostensibly seeking cigarettes, but that they left after learning he might have a gun. ECF 60, PgID 347-48. Carr testified that the shorter of the two men returned later and stole his car. Id. at 350, 353-54. Katherine Strickland saw the events unfold, and testified to seeing the two men approach Carr's vehicle the first time. Id. at 398. She also saw them approach a second time and then heard gunshots. Id. at 398-99. She testified that initially one of the two men got into the car, but then the second man got in, too. Id. at 399-400.

         Detective Brian Menge of the Highland Park Police Department spoke with Carr shortly after the incident and learned that Carr's cell phone was taken along with the vehicle. Id. at 486-87. Menge enlisted the aid of the FBI's Violent Crimes Task Force in an attempt to locate the car using cell-site data. Id. at 489. Based on the data, the Detroit Police Department pulled over a car. Id. at 497-98. The driver was co-defendant Tyree Darrell, and Wiggins was in the backseat. Id. at 498-99. Wiggins and Darrell were brought in for questioning and Darrell explained his involvement orally and in a written statement. ECF 61, PgID 525-27.

         Darrell himself took the stand, too, and admitted that he was testifying in conjunction with a plea agreement. ECF 60, PgID at 410-11. He also admitted to being one of the two men who had approached Carr; he identified Wiggins as the other. Id. 416-17. During cross-examination, Darrell admitted that he was not entirely truthful with law enforcement officials shortly after his arrest, and Wiggins's counsel elicited other allegedly inconsistent testimony. See, e.g., id. at 436, 444-45, 461-62.

         Wiggins now takes issue with three alleged deficiencies in the Government's evidence. First, he insists that Darrell's inconsistencies precluded the jury from believing his testimony beyond a reasonable doubt, leading Wiggins to conclude that his own conviction was the result of "other errors which occurred at trial[.]" ECF 58, PgID 307. Second, Wiggins seems[1] to claim that there was insufficient evidence that the stolen vehicle traveled in interstate commerce. ECF 58, PgID 309-10. And third, Wiggins vaguely asserts that there was insufficient evidence to identify him as an aider and abettor to Darrell. Id. at 310-11.

         Concerning the interstate-commerce argument, Agent Pennisi testified that he discovered the car's VIN number by researching its license plate, and a General Motors employee, William Hohnstadt, testified that a car with that VIN number would have been manufactured in Ohio. ECF 60, PgID 482. Although Wiggins objected to Pennisi's testimony on hearsay grounds, the objection was overruled, and Wiggins did not address the matter on cross-examination. ECF 61, PgID 590, 592-94.The jury therefore had before it enough evidence to find that the car traveled in interstate commerce.

         The jury also had enough evidence to find Wiggins was an aider or abettor. The jury was made well aware of the alleged inconsistencies of Tyree Darrell's testimony, and that he testified in conjunction with a plea agreement. Those circumstances may have made Darrell a less-than-perfect witness, but they did not preclude the jury from believing all or part of his testimony, and disbelieving others. The jury also had before it the testimony of the arresting officers, the cell-tracking data, and the accounts of Carr and Strickland. When viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, the Court must conclude that a rational jury could have found all the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

         The final Rule 29 matter is that of the allegedly arbitrary or irrational verdict. Wiggins asserts that convicting him of aiding and abetting a carjacking while finding him not guilty of using a firearm during and in relation to the carjacking was irrational and inconsistent. ECF 58, PgID 311. To begin, the split verdict is not necessarily "inconsistent"-the jury could have reasonably believed that Darrell fired the gun, notwithstanding Darrell's own telling.[2] But even so, "inconsistent verdicts are generally held not to be reviewable, " United States v. Lawrence, 555 F.3d 254, 262 (6th Cir. 2009) (citing United States v. Dykes, 406 F.3d 717, 722 (D.C. Cir. 2005) and collecting other cases). Wiggins concludes that the split verdict was a "windfall" for the Government, but in situations like these, it is unclear whose "ox has been gored" because a "jury that inconsistently convicts the defendant of one offense and acquits him of another is as likely to have erred in acquitting him of the one as in convicting him of the other." Id. at 261-62 (quoting United States v. Johnson, 223 F.3d 665, 675 (7th Cir. 2000). Thus, whether inconsistent or not, Wiggins is not entitled to an acquittal.

         II. Retrial ...


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