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United States v. Graham, No. 09-5067

Decided:  March 29, 2013

William Leonard Graham appealed his conviction of one count of conspiracy to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846.  On appeal, Graham asserted reversible error on three bases:  (1) an alleged violation of the Court Reporter Act, 28 U.S.C. § 753(b); (2) the admission of statements by coconspirators recorded during wiretapped conversations; and (3) a life sentence that allegedly contravenes the Constitution.  The Fourth Circuit rejected Graham’s three contentions and affirmed the district court’s judgment.

Graham’s first argument on appeal is based on the fact that the Government introduced numerous recordings of wiretap conversations among Graham’s codefendants in which Graham was not a participant.  On appeal, the Fourth Circuit appointed appellate counsel for Graham, and because none of the recordings played during trial were recorded or transcribed by the court reporter during their presentation to the jury, the appointed counsel was concerned that he had incomplete knowledge of the trial record that could impede his representation of Graham on appeal.  Therefore, the Fourth Circuit granted a consent motion to rescind the briefing order, and the district court subsequently held an evidentiary hearing to determine which of the recordings were originally played for the jury during Graham’s trial.  Despite the district court’s conclusion identifying the recordings that were played at trial, Graham argued that the court reporter’s failure to transcribe the contents of the wiretap conversations played to the jury during trial constituted a violation of the Court Reporter Act (“CRA”), 28 U.S.C. § 753(b).  The Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s compliance with the CRA de novo and concluded that it did not need to resolve the issue because Graham could not satisfy the elements needed to obtain a new trial based on transcript errors, as described in its decision in United States v. Brown.  Specifically, the Court found that the district court’s findings with respect to the recordings “were amply supported by the evidence presented at the [evidentiary] hearing and enabled Graham to ‘perfect [his] appeal.’”  Therefore, Graham could not establish the prejudice necessary to substantiate his claim under the CRA.

Next, “Graham ague[d] that the district court erred in admitting the wiretap conversations of his coconspirators under Federal Rule of Evidence … 801(d)(2)(E) because the tapes merely captured ‘idle chatter’ between them about Graham’s past debt for marijuana, and because the conversations were not in the course, or in furtherance, of a conspiracy.  The Court reviewed the district court’s admission of the statements for abuse of discretion and noted that the “existence of the three prongs of admissibility for coconspirator statements … must be supported by a preponderance of the evidence.”  (citation omitted).  On this issue, the Court first addressed Graham’s contention “that the district court erred by not making explicit findings on the existence of a conspiracy prior to admitting the statements.”  The Court dismissed this argument, finding that “a trial court is not required to hold a hearing to determine whether a conspiracy exists before admitting statements under the rule, and the court need not explain the reasoning behind the evidentiary ruling.”  (citation omitted).  Second, the Court assessed Graham’s argument “that each of the five recordings played for the jury was nothing more than ‘profanity laden conversation’ about collecting a debt from Graham” and that the conversations could not constitute coconspirator statements.  The Court found that even though Graham was not captured in any of the calls between the coconspirators that were recorded during the Government’s investigation leading up to the case, “and even though there was adversity between Graham and his coconspirators, each call played at trial contained discussions that rendered them ‘in furtherance’ of the overall conspiracy.”  Therefore, the Court ultimately found the district court’s admission of the statements to be neither erroneous nor an abuse of discretion.

Finally, Graham challenged his mandatory life sentence imposed by the district court judge after the Government informed the judge that Graham faced a mandatory life sentence because it had filed an information under 21 U.S.C. § 851 based on Graham’s three prior felony offenses.  Graham argued that his life sentence contravenes the Constitution.  The Court rejected this argument, finding that it was bound by the Supreme Court’s decision in Almendarez-Torres v. United States, which holds that Graham’s argument cannot be sustained.

Full Opinion

– Allison Hite