Thursday, September 22, 2011

47 year prison terms affirmed for brothers convicted of Hobbs Act robbery of local drug dealer

Brothers Barron and Barry Walker were convicted after trial of various offenses including drug trafficking, firearm and robbery charges. Each was sentenced to a prison term of 47 1/2 years. On appeal, the brothers challenged their convictions and sentences on multiple grounds, including improper joinder, sufficiency of the evidence, improper expert testimony, and an alleged Brady violation. The Third Circuit, in United States v. Walker, 10-3090 (3d Cir. Sept. 13, 2011), quickly disposed of the severance claims, holding that joinder of all counts against both brothers was proper, despite the inclusion of two escape-related charges solely against Barry Walker, where the escape charges arose directly from the earlier drug, conspiracy and gun charges against both brothers. Nor, according to the Third Circuit, did the district court abuse its discretion in declining to grant Barron Walker's motion to sever his trial from his brother's trial where the issues were uncomplicated, the trial lasted only four days, included only two defendants and encompassed only three distinct episodes of criminal conduct.

With regard to the sufficiency of the evidence on the 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) charge (use of a firearm in furtherance of drug distribution), the Court found that the testimony of the confidential informant and a cooperating co-defendant, while not overwhelming, was sufficient to sustain the convictions. The witnesses testified that they observed Barron and Barry Walker arrive together in the same vehicle, that Barron had cocaine in his possession, and that Barron and Barry jointly made a cocaine sale while Barry wore a gun on his hip.

Next, the Court addressed the brothers' challenge to the government's expert on cocaine trafficking. In order to support the interstate commerce element of the Hobbs Act robbery charge, the government's expert, a 30 year law enforcement officer and narcotics investigator, testified that cocaine is manufactured outside of Pennsylvania and transported into the State. The Walkers' argued that the expert's testimony was unreliable because they could have possessed synthetic cocaine and the expert was unable to distinguish between synthetic and plant-based cocaine. The Third Circuit rejected this argument and agreed with the district court's conclusion that the expert's method for reaching his conclusions was reliable. It found that the expert's opinions were based on his personal experiences interacting with drug traffickers and law enforcement personnel over 30 years. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the expert's testimony was properly admitted.

With regard to the sufficiency of the evidence on the Hobbs Act robbery charge, the Third Circuit held "that by presenting evidence that (1) the Walkers attempted to rob a cocaine dealer of a de minimis amount of drugs and cash, and (2) the drug dealer's cocaine originated outside of Pennsylvania, the government presented sufficient evidence" to satisfy the interstate commerce element of the Hobbs Act. The Court acknowledged that the use of the Hobbs Act to prosecute "what could be considered a fairly garden-variety robbery gives us some pause," especially in light of the extremely harsh sentences that resulted. Nevertheless, the Court "trust[s] and expect[s]" that federal prosecutors will exercise their broad prosecutorial discretion "to make the most effective use of federal resources, to avoid supplanting the state criminal systems that quite ably address classic state-law crimes, and to seek just and appropriate criminal sentences in the course of their representation of the United States."

Finally, the Third Circuit addressed the defendants' claim that the government withheld exculpatory evidence material to their defense in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). The Court found that the government' s failure to disclose information regarding an incident where their confidential informant was found to be in possession of 0.18 grams of crack cocaine was not material to the instant prosecution where the CI was not the only witness against the defendants and had already been thoroughly impeached by the defense team.

For the foregoing reasons, the Third Circuit affirmed the convictions and sentences of both Barron and Barry Walker.

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