United States v. Lespier, No. 12-4266

Decided: August 6, 2013

The Fourth Circuit affirmed James Ernest Lespier’s jury conviction on two offenses arising from the murder of his ex-girlfriend on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ reservation.  In its opinion, the Fourth Circuit rejected Lespier’s challenges that the district court’s denial of judgment of acquittal, two of the court’s evidentiary rulings, and its decision not to instruct the jury on the lesser-included offense of second-degree murder.

On May 17, 2010, Lespier, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, spent the day fishing with friends and hosted a fish fry at his residence located within the boundaries of the Eastern Cherokee reservation.  The fish fry ended, however, when Lespier got into a verbal argument with his ex-girlfriend Mandi Smith, with whom he had a three-year-old son.  Lespier drove one of his friends home from the party and, when he returned to his residence, he shot Smith in the back of the head with a .38 caliber revolver, killing her instantly.  Later that evening, Lespier called 911 “screaming incomprehensibly but ultimately conveying the message that Smith had been shot and was dead.”  When the police arrived, Lespier was covered in blood and incoherent.  After securing the crime scene, the police began their investigation and soon determined that the crime scene ‘had been cleaned up.’  In addition, they found the revolver under Smith’s body, several holes bullet holes located in the walls of the home, a single oxycodone pill, in a plastic baggie, and an unloaded shotgun with a fresh crack in the wooden stock.  In the days and months following the murder, Lespier gave authorities several exculpatory versions of the events of that night that conflicted with each other.  Witnesses and friends of Smith and Lespier also provided information to law enforcement about Lespier’s long history of threats and physical violence against Smith and their young son.  Prior to trial, prosecutors notified Lespier’s lawyers that they intended to present evidence, under Federal Rules of Evidence 404(b), of Lespier’s prior threats and physical violence against Smith.  Lespier opposed use of any of this evidence and the district court excluded certain prior bad acts and reserved judgment on others.  Ultimately, the court allowed the evidentiary use of certain threats and physical violence by Lespier against Smith.  The court also addressed the issue of a psychology expert Lespier intended to call to offer testimony to explain the inconsistencies in statements made by Lespier.  The court decided to exclude the testimony because it would have invaded the province of the jury.  At the conclusion of the prosecution’s evidence and at the close of all evidence, Lespier sought judgments of acquittal.  The district court denied both motions.  Finally, the court turned to the issue of jury instructions.  Lespier initially opposed an instruction that would permit the jury to convict him on the lesser-included offense of second-degree murder.  Specifically, Lespier asserted that he was not asking for a second-degree charge and argued that the government was trying “to change the rules.”  Over the government’s continued objections, the court held that a trial court may decline to instruct on a lesser-included offense when the defendant objects and only instructed the jury on the elements of first-degree murder.  The jury found Lespier guilty of first-degree murder and that he used a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence and Lespier appealed.

Lespier raised three contentions on appeal.  First, he challenged the district court’s denial of judgments of acquittal.  The Fourth Circuit held that there was substantial evidence to support the guilty verdict and the district court properly denied the judgments of acquittal.  Next, Lespier argued that the district court abused its discretion in permitting the introduction of the Rule 404(b) evidence and precluding his psychology expert’s testimony.  With regards to the Rule 404(b) evidence, the court analyzed the district court’s decision under the four-part test set forth in United States v. Queen, 132 F.3d 991, and held that the district court did not abuse its discretion admitting the evidence because it was relevant to show Lespier’s intent and absence of mistake.  The Fourth Circuit then took up the challenge to the district court’s decision to exclude the testimony of the psychology expert.  The Fourth Circuit agreed with the trial court that the expert testimony would have intruded on the jury’s role in assessing the credibility of witnesses, namely Lespier himself, and therefore the court did not abuse its discretion.  Finally, the Fourth Circuit addressed Lespier’s argument that the district court erred in declining the prosecutor’s requests for instruction on the lesser-included offense of second-degree murder.  Though Lespier argued against such an instruction, on appeal he contended that an exception to the “invited error doctrine” applied in this case.  The court acknowledged that the district court erred when it declined to instruct on the lesser-included offense.  In addition, the Fourth Circuit agreed that there was a potential exception to the invited error doctrine to preserve the integrity of the judicial process or prevent the miscarriage of justice.  However, the Fourth Circuit ultimately held that the instructional error committed by the district court was not a basis for disturbing Lespier’s convictions because Lespier opposed the second-degree murder instruction as a matter of sound trial strategy and that there was no indication that this failed strategy would undermine the justice system,

Full Opinion

– John G. Tamasitis

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