Week Thirty-Five

Week of August 28, 2017 through September 1, 2017

EQT Production Company v. Matthew Wender (Harris 8/30/2017): The Fourth Circuit held that West Virginia’s Water Pollution Control Act preempts and prevents county ordinances from prohibiting the disposal of wastewater anywhere within a county in that state. Under the Act, the state operates a program for the issuance of injection well permits, and the court reasoned that the state legislature did not leave counties with the authority to nullify permits issued by the state. Accordingly, the court affirmed the decision of the district court to grant summary judgment to EQT Production Company and to permanently enjoin the challenged provisions of the Fayette County ordinance relating to the county’s prohibition on the disposal of wastewater. Full Opinion

United States of America v. Jorge Avila Torrez (Thacker 8/28/2017): The Fourth Circuit upheld a criminal defendant’s conviction and death sentence for first-degree murder under the Federal Death Penalty Act (“FDPA”). Specifically, as to the defendant’s challenges to his sentence of death, the court held as follows: (1) under the FDPA, predicate convictions occurring prior to sentencing can satisfy 18 U.S.C. § 3592(c)(2) and (c)(4), which are statutory aggravating factors relating to the eligibility phase of sentencing; (2) a “categorical” approach does not apply to § 3592(c)(2) dealing with prior conviction aggravators in the eligibility phase of sentencing under the FDPA, and that the defendant’s past convictions clearly qualified as violent felonies involving a firearm pursuant to that statutory provision; and (3) the district court did not abuse its discretion in failing to order a second competency evaluation and hearing after the defendant chose to proceed to sentencing with only standby counsel and decided to present no mitigating evidence during sentencing. Accordingly, the court affirmed the defendant’s conviction of first-degree murder and death sentence. Full Opinion


Highlight Case

United States of America v. Jorge Avila Torrez, No. 14-1

Decided: August 28, 2017

The Fourth Circuit held that the criminal defendant’s challenges to his conviction of first-degree murder were meritless and that there was no reversible error in the sentencing proceedings that resulted in the defendant’s death sentence.

The defendant, Jorge Avila Torrez, was arrested in 2010 and charged with the murder of Amanda Snell, a Navy Intelligence Specialist who was stationed at a military base near Arlington, Virginia. Snell was found dead in her room on July 13, 2009, and the cause of death was determined to be asphyxia. The defendant, who lived just down the hall from Snell, was implicated in her murder when he was arrested for a series of other crimes in Arlington County (“the Arlington Crimes”). The Arlington Crimes consisted of two separate incidents wherein the defendant used a deadly weapon—a knife and a gun, respectively—attempting to kidnap women. Upon arrest, the defendant was also charged with the 2005 murder of two young girls in Zion, Illinois (“the Zion Crimes”).

While in jail, awaiting trial for the murder of Amanda Snell, police officers coordinated with another federal inmate, Osama El-Atari, to have him act as a confidential informant and to record conversations between himself and the defendant. During these conversations, the defendant admitted to suffocating Snell in her room and described with preciseness many of the details from the crime scene. A federal grand jury returned an indictment charging the defendant with one count of first-degree murder of Snell, and the indictment alleged statutory aggravating factors supporting a death sentence based on the Arlington Crimes. Specifically, the two aggravating factors were as follows: (1) the previous conviction of a felony involving the use or attempted or threatened use of a firearm; and (2) two separate, previous convictions involving the infliction of, or attempted infliction of, serious bodily injury or death. The jury returned a guilty verdict and, during the penalty phase of the proceedings, found the defendant eligible for and unanimously recommended the sentence of the death penalty. The defendant presented no mitigating evidence, and the district court subsequently adopted the jury’s recommendation and sentenced the defendant to death.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit first addressed the defendant’s four challenges to his first-degree murder conviction. Finding the challenges to be without merit, the court first held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in conditioning cross-examination of Osama El-Atari on evidence of the Zion Crimes as opposed to also allowing defense counsel to cross-examine El-Atari about other statements the defendant made to him while in jail; as such, the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights were not violated. Second, the court rejected the defendant’s contention that admitting evidence of the Arlington Crimes and of the defendant’s electronic media, which contained violent pornography, violated Rule 404(b) of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Instead, the court held that both pieces of evidence were properly admitted because they were relevant and necessary to demonstrate the defendant’s modus operandi, motive, and intent. Third, the court rejected the defendant’s challenge, under harmless error review, to the district court’s admission of testimony from a witness as to the shoes the defendant was wearing during commission of the crime. Fourth, the court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in rejecting the defendant’s proposed voir dire question explicitly mentioning murder in lieu of orally communicating to the jury that the defendant had committed a number of crimes, but not explicitly mentioning murder.

After holding the defendant’s challenges to his conviction of first-degree murder to be without merit and affirming his conviction, the Fourth Circuit next addressed the defendant’s three challenges to his sentence of death. Finding no reversible error in the sentencing proceedings, the court first held that, under the Federal Death Penalty Act (“FDPA”), predicate convictions occurring prior to sentencing can satisfy 18 U.S.C. § 3592(c)(2) and (c)(4), which are statutory aggravating factors relating to the eligibility phase of sentencing. This holding thus negated the defendant’s contention that the death penalty was unconstitutionally imposed because it was based on conduct and convictions—i.e. the Arlington Crimes—that occurred after Snell’s murder. Second, the court held that a “categorical” approach does not apply to § 3592(c)(2) dealing with prior conviction aggravators in the eligibility phase of sentencing under the FDPA, and that the defendant’s past convictions clearly qualified as violent felonies involving a firearm pursuant to § 3592(c)(2). Lastly, the court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in failing to order a second competency evaluation and hearing after the defendant chose to proceed to sentencing with only standby counsel and decided to present no mitigating evidence during sentencing. As support for this conclusion, the court noted that the defense counsel’s opinion about the defendant’s competency was unequivocal, and that defendants are free to make a “rational choice” to forego a mitigation defense.

Accordingly, the court affirmed the defendant’s conviction of first-degree murder and death sentence. The court further stated it was “satisfied” that the evidence clearly supported the special finding of the existence of an aggravating factor required to be considered under § 3592, and that the sentence of death received by the defendant was not imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice, or any other such arbitrary factor.

Full Opinion

Raymond J. Prince

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