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United States v. DeLeon No. 10-4064

Decided: May 15, 2012

DeLeon appeals his conviction for the murder and assault of Jordan Peterson, asserting that the District Court erred in regards to certain evidentiary issues and in making a factual finding at sentencing that DeLeon claims should have been reserved for the jury. The Appellate Court disagreed with DeLeon’s arguments and affirmed the judgment of the District Court.

At the time of Peterson’s death, DeLeon lived with his wife and her two children, one of which was Peterson.  DeLeon was home alone with both children the day that Peterson died.  Peterson complained of stomach pain and a headache, but DeLeon instructed Peterson to take a shower and sought no treatment for Peterson.  Peterson collapsed in the shower and was unable to be revived by DeLeon or the medical personnel on the scene.  Peterson’s cause of death was determined to be hemorrhaging due to lacerations to his liver caused by blunt force trauma inflicted 6 to 12 hours before Peterson’s collapse.  The autopsy also revealed other bruising on Peterson’s body due to blunt force trauma.

The government’s theory was that DeLeon inflicted the fatal blows as corporeal punishment, and its evidence included various testimony that DeLeon made use of various corporeal punishment methods.  This testimony came from a local woman who had previously found Peterson and his sister on the streets (“Uechi”), a social worker who provided treatment to the family (“Thomas”), and Peterson’s sister (“AD”).

On appeal, DeLeon claims that the District Court erred, first, by admitting Thomas’ hearsay testimony.  He contends that admitting the out of court statements Peterson made to Thomas during an initial meeting violated his rights under the Confrontation Clause.  The statements described methods DeLeon utilized as punishment, including DeLeon standing and kneeling on Peterson’s back, spanking Peterson with his hand and belt, and making Peterson hold a hammer while leaning down for several minutes.  The Court of Appeals reviewed the decision de novo, and concluded that the primary purpose of reasonable participants in a meeting, such as the one between Peterson and Thomas, would not be the preservation of evidence for future criminal prosecution, and thus, the statements at issue were nontestimonial and their admission was not in violation of DeLeon’s Sixth Amendment rights.

DeLeon next contends that the District Court violated the rules of evidence by admitting the hearsay statements of Uechi, Thomas, and AD. The Appellate Court reviewed these decisions for abuse of discretion, and affirmed the lower court’s ruling on each piece of contested hearsay.

The first contested statement was a statement by Peterson to Thomas accusing DeLeon of causing a bruise to his forehead.  The Appellate Court affirmed the District Court’s admission of the statement under the Federal Rules of Evidence (“FRE”) 803(4), the exception for statements made for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment, as well as under FRE 807, the residual hearsay exception.

The second contested statement was a statement by Peterson to Uechi, who previously found him and his sister on the street.  Uechi testified that Peterson told her not to buy him food or shoes because DeLeon would “do bad things” if he found out.  DeLeon argued that this statement was essentially a statement that DeLeon had done bad things to Peterson in the past and was thus inadmissible, but the Appellate Court affirmed the District Court’s ruling that the statement was not hearsay as it contained no assertion of fact being offered for the truth therein, and also that it would be admissible regardless, under the state of mind exception under FRE 803(3).

The next set of contested statements was made by AD, Peterson’s nine-year-old half sister, during two videotaped interviews with investigators.  AD’s statements described DeLeon’s use of corporeal punishment and that she saw DeLeon punch or strike Peterson in the stomach; however, AD later recanted her statements regarding DeLeon punching Peterson in the stomach.  The Appellate Court affirmed the District Court’s ruling to admit AD’s statement under the residual exception of FRE 807, finding each of the requirements of Rule 807 met.  Thus, the Appellate court found no abuse of discretion in the admission of AD’s videotaped statements.

In addition to his claims that the District Court erred in admitting the above mentioned statements, DeLeon further contends that the lower court erred by refusing to allow DeLeon’s expert witness to clarify the standard he used to determine Peterson’s cause of death.  DeLeon argued that the District Court’s ruling – not allowing the expert to elaborate on the meaning of “reasonable degree of medical certainty,” and striking the testimony that medical examiners apply a preponderance of the evidence standard – undercut his defense that Peterson’s death could have been accidental.  The Appellate Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling emphasizing that in this situation there was little need for an expert witness to explain a commonly applied standard, and thus, there was no abuse of discretion in limiting the expert’s testimony.

DeLeon also claims that the District Court erred in admitting proof of his prior acts of corporeal punishment, alleging that this constituted impermissible character evidence. The Appellate Court affirmed the District Court’s ruling denying DeLeon’s motion to exclude this evidence, finding that the government introduced this evidence because it tended to prove the identity and motive of the perpetrator and tended to show that Peterson’s death was not an accident – both permissible uses under FRE 404(b).  Thus, because the government introduced this evidence of DeLeon’s prior use of physical punishment for a permissible use under FRE 404(b), and not for the impermissible use of demonstrating bad character, the Court of Appeals found no abuse of discretion.

DeLeon’s final contention on appeal is that the District Court violated his Sixth Amendment rights by imposing his sentence based on a question of fact that was not submitted to the jury.  Specifically, the lower court concluded that Peterson was under the age of eighteen and thus imposed the mandatory thirty-year minimum sentence for the murder charge and the mandatory ten-year minimum sentence for the assault charge.  DeLeon argued that Peterson’s age was an element of the crime that must go to the jury to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, rather than a sentencing factor that can be decided by the court by a preponderance of the evidence.  The Appellate Court acknowledged that Congress draws the line between what is an element of a crime and what a sentencing factor is, and turned to the relevant statute, Section 3559(f), in its analysis.  Finding that Congress’ intent was is not explicit in Section 3559(f), the Court then considered five factors to ascertain Congress’ intent: (1) language and structure, (2) tradition, (3) risk of unfairness, (4) severity of the sentence, and (5) legislative history.  The Appellate Court concluded that based on these factors, under Section 3559(f), age is a sentencing factor rather than an element of the crime, and as such, the lower court could properly determine Peterson’s age by a preponderance of the evidence.  Thus, the Appellate Court affirmed DeLeon’s sentence.

In summary, the Appellate Court held that there was no error by the District Court in admitting the hearsay testimony of Thomas, Uechi, or AD; no abuse of discretion in limiting DeLeon’s defense expert witness’ testimony; no abuse of discretion in admitting evidence of DeLeon’s prior acts of using corporeal punishment; and no abuse of discretion in treating Peterson’s age as a sentencing factor to be determined by the court.

Full Opinion

– Kassandra Moore