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United States v. Dinkins, No. 10-2270

Decided: August 14, 2012

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions of three defendants who were tried together for charges relating to the murder of certain government witnesses, the murder of a co-conspirator, and numerous other narcotics and firearms-related offenses.  While defendant’s raised many issues on appeal, the primary holdings were that “the district court did not abuse its discretion in maintaining juror anonymity, and that the challenged hearsay statements were admissible based on the defendants’ conduct leading to the witness’ death.”

The offenses arise from the three defendants’ involvement in a Baltimore drug-trafficking organization known as “Special.”  Gilbert was considered a “leader,” Dinkins was an “enforcer” who committed murders for hire, and Goods sold drug for the organization.  On September 10, 2005, Dinkins was paid to shoot and killed Jemmison, a government informant.  John Dowery, another Special member, witnessed a murder committed by two other Special members and became a government witness and informant.  On October 19, 2005, Dinkins and West shot Dowery multiple times outside of his house.  Dowery survived and identified Dinkins as the shooter.  Dowery was relocated and measures were taken to protect his as a witness.  Dowery decided to return home for Thanksgiving, and was shot several times by Gilbert and Goods.  Dowery died from those wounds.

The main focus of the Fourth Circuit was whether the district court committed reversible error in deciding to empanel an anonymous jury, and whether the hearsay statements of Dowery were admissible.

The issues and circumstances under which a district court may empanel an anonymous jury presented a matter of first impression.  In non-capital cases a district court may empanel an anonymous jury in any case in which the interests of justice so require.  In capital cases, an anonymous jury may be empanelled when a district court determines, by a preponderance of the evidence, that a non-anonymous jury may jeopardize the life or safety of any person.  The Fourth Circuit held that a district court may empanel an anonymous jury only in rare circumstances and when two conditions are met: (1) there is a strong reason to conclude that the jury needs protection, and (2) reasonable safeguards have been adopted to protect the rights of the accused.  The Fourth Circuit applied these conditions and the Ross factors, and found that an anonymous jury was justified for all three defendants.  The defendants participated in organized criminal activity, belong to an organization with the capacity to harm jurors, had previously engaged in attempts to interfere with judicial process, and had the incentive to do so again due to the severe sentences they faced.  The district court took reasonable precautions to minimize the risk that the defendants’ rights would be infringed by downplaying the existence of an anonymous jury.  The jury did not know their biographical information was withheld, protecting the defendants’ right to a presumption of innocence.  The district court also took appropriate measures to protect the defendants’ right to a trial by impartial jury by allowing a juror questionnaire collaboratively drafted by all parties, a four day voir dire, and for zip codes, counties, and neighborhoods of potential jurors to be revealed to the parties.

The Fourth Circuit held that Dowery’s hearsay statements were admissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 804(b)(6) and the common law hearsay exception of forfeiture-by-wrongdoing.  Dowery, who was shot by Dinkins, and then shot and killed by Goods and Gilbert, was made unavailable by the defendants’ intentional, or acquiesced in, wrongdoing to prevent him from testifying. As a matter of first impression, the Fourth Circuit held that traditional principles of conspiracy liability are applicable within the forfeiture-by-wrongdoing analysis.

Full Opinion

-Jenna Hendricks