United States v. Shepperson, No. 11-4618

Decided: January 8, 2014

Chinua Shepperson was convicted several crimes, including racketeering, conspiracy, and murder in connection with his involvement in the Latin King gang. The district court sentenced Shepperson to life plus ten years’ imprisonment. Shepperson argues that the district court erred by not affording him the assistance of two attorneys at trial and by not excluding the testimony of a witness based on the government’s failure to furnish him with a list of witnesses three days before commencement of trial. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed Shepperson’s convictions.

On appeal, Shepperson first argued that the district erred by not affording him the assistance of two attorneys as required by the United States Code where a defendant is on trial for “treason or other capital crime.” Although the Attorney General did not seek a capital sentence in this particular case, the Fourth Circuit previously held that a defendant is entitled to representation by two attorneys in any capital-eligible case whether or not the death penalty is actually sought. Shepperson admitted that he did not request additional counsel; however, he asserted that the court nevertheless was obligated to inform him of his right to two attorneys sua sponte because of Shepperson’s obvious dissatisfaction with his own attorney. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, finding that the district court had no affirmative obligation with respect to the appointment of a second attorney where the defendant did not ask for one. Moreover, while the right to the assistance of a single attorney is a constitutional right guaranteed by the sixth amendment, the right to a second attorney in a capital case is a right created entirely by statute. Thus, the district court had no burden beyond the plain language of the statute, which merely imposed the obligation on the district court to appoint a second attorney upon the defendant’s request.

Secondly, Shepperson contended that the district court erred by not excluding the testimony of a witness for the government because the government did not furnish Shepperson with a list of witnesses three days before the commencement of trial as required in a capital case under the United States Code. The Fourth Circuit found this requirement inapplicable because the Attorney General elected not to pursue the death penalty. Moreover, while the government did not provide a list of witnesses three days before trial, the statute’s purpose of avoiding surprise was nevertheless met because the witness’s name was read aloud during the first day of jury selection, three days before the witness testified. Furthermore, Shepperson made no effort to exclude the witness’s testimony during trial because of the late disclosure. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit affirmed Shepperson’s convictions in district court.

Full Opinion

– Wesley B. Lambert

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