United States v. Tremane Carthen, et al.

United States v. Tremane Carthen, et al., Nos. 16-17653 and 16-17753, (October 25, 2018)

The Court affirmed the convictions of two defendants who were sentenced under § 924(c), holding that the district court did not err in admitting hearsay testimony from a co-conspirator or in excluding specific instances of the co-conspirators prior lies to impeach him, and that the mandatory sentencing scheme in § 924(c) was constitutional.

Evidence – The district court did not have to find the existence of a conspiracy by a preponderance of the evidence independently from a co-conspirators testimony before admitting hearsay statements from that co-conspirator into evidence.

Evidence – The district court was correct in holding that FRE 608(b) prohibited the defense from introducing evidence of a witness’s prior lies in judicial proceedings to impeach the witness’s general “character for truthfulness.”

Fifth Amendment – Convictions on multiple counts of § 924(c) charged in the same indictment constitute “second or subsequent” convictions for purposes of sentencing under § 924(c)

Eighth Amendment – Mandatory minimum sentence of 57 years was not unconstitutionally disproportionate despite the Guidelines recommending a range of 108-135 months of imprisonment.

Tremane Carthen and Scottie Groce sought to appeal their convictions for multiple counts of federal robbery and firearm offenses. At the trial, the Government heavily relied on the testimony of Martin, an alleged co-conspirator. Specifically at issue was whether the district court erred in admitting certain hearsay testimony from Martin and excluding impeachment evidence, and whether the mandatory sentencing scheme under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

Carthen argued that the trial court erred in admitting Martin’s hearsay testimony because there was insufficient independent evidence tying Carthen to the alleged conspiracy. The Court rejected this argument, however, pointing out that, since the Federal Rules of Evidence were enacted in 1975, courts may admit hearsay statements by alleged co-conspirators without first having to find that a conspiracy existed from evidence that is independent of the statements in the co-conspirator’s testimony. The Court held that Martin’s testimony at trial established the existence of a conspiracy by a preponderance of the evidence.

Groce argued that the court erred in refusing to allow Groce to present evidence to impeach Martin. In the event that Martin might deny having previously lied under oath, Groce’s counsel planned on calling two witnesses to impeach Martin—a man acquitted of murder after Martin testified against him for the government and a law enforcement officer whose testimony at a suppression hearing was credited over Martin’s testimony at the same hearing.

The district court excluded the testimony of the two proposed witnesses under FRE 608(b), which prohibits the admission of extrinsic evidence “to prove specific instances of a witness’s conduct in order to attack or support the witness’s character for truthfulness.” Since Groce sought to introduce testimony of specific instances of Martin lying in judicial proceedings or for his own benefit as a general attack on Martin’s credibility, the Court held that the proposed witnesses’ testimony must be excluded.

The Court also rejected Carthen and Groce’s claims that the mandatory minimum sentencing scheme established by § 924(c), which includes a higher mandatory minimum for each subsequent conviction, was unconstitutional. Carthen had argued that his conviction on three § 924(c) counts was only one conviction, not a “second or subsequent conviction.”

The Eleventh Circuit disagreed, citing its binding 2016 decision in United States v. Bowers, 811 F.3d 412, which established that convictions on multiple § 924(c) counts charged in the same indictment are to be considered “second and subsequent” convictions under § 924(c).

The Court also pointed to Bowers in rejecting Groce’s argument that the sentencing scheme in § 924(c) was disproportionately excessive under the Eighth Amendment. While Groce had argued that his 57-year mandatory minimum sentence was disproportionate given the recommended 108-135 months Guidelines range for his offense, the Court noted that it had upheld a 182-year sentence in Bowers that was ten times the recommended Guidelines range.

Judge Pryor concurred to emphasize that FRE 608(b) only serves as a bar to evidence that only generally attacks a witness’s character for truthfulness. He noted that the Rule had been narrowed by amendment in 2003, and that the Eleventh Circuit should overrule its prior cases allowing FR 608(b) to bar evidence that would impeach a character based on contradiction, prior inconsistent statements, bias, mental capacity, etc. Ultimately, he opined, the spirit of the new rule is that extrinsic evidence is admissible to prove “that a witness lied, not that he is a liar.”

Appeal from the Middle District of Alabama

Opinion by Martin, joined by W. Pryor and Baldock (by designation from the 10th Cir.)

Concurrence by W. Pryor

TOPICS: Evidence, Firearms Offenses, Sentencing, Fifth Amendment, Eighth Amendment