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United States v. Wright

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 8, 2017

United States of America Plaintiff-Appellee
v.
Max Julian Wright Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: June 8, 2017

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa - Cedar Rapids

          Before WOLLMAN, GRUENDER, and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges.

          GRUENDER, Circuit Judge.

         Following a jury trial, Max Julian Wright was convicted of one count of conspiracy to distribute heroin, cocaine base, and fentanyl, and two counts of distributing fentanyl. Because Wright had prior felony drug convictions and the drugs caused deaths and serious bodily injuries, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Wright now appeals his conviction, arguing that the district court[1]erred by admitting into evidence one of his prior felony drug convictions, limiting his cross-examination of a witness, and denying his motion for a new trial based on suppression of Brady material. For the following reasons, we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In December 2015, a grand jury returned a third superseding indictment charging Wright with one count of conspiracy to distribute heroin, cocaine base, and fentanyl, resulting in death and serious bodily injury, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A), (b)(1)(B), (b)(1)(C), and 846. The indictment specified that Wright conspired to distribute 100 grams or more of heroin, 280 grams or more of cocaine base, and a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of fentanyl. The indictment further specified that the drugs distributed in furtherance of the conspiracy caused six serious bodily injuries and two deaths. It also charged Wright with two counts of distributing fentanyl, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C). Wright pleaded not guilty to all counts and proceeded to trial.

         Prior to trial, the Government filed a motion in limine requesting a pretrial ruling regarding the admissibility of Wright's three prior felony drug convictions. The Government argued that the prior convictions were admissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b) as evidence of Wright's knowledge, intent, and lack of mistake. The district court granted the motion in part, excluding two of the convictions but ruling that his 2008 conviction for manufacture or delivery of greater than 40 grams of cocaine was admissible under Rule 404(b). The court also issued a written limiting instruction, instructing the jury that the evidence regarding the prior conviction could be considered only on the issues of "intent, knowledge, and absence of mistake or accident."

         Also prior to trial, the Government filed an information, pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851, announcing the Government's intent to pursue enhanced penalties based on Wright's prior felony drug convictions. As a result, Wright would receive a mandatory term of life imprisonment if he were convicted of the conspiracy count with a finding that the drugs distributed in furtherance of the conspiracy caused any death or serious bodily injury. See 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(1)(B), (b)(1)(C), and 846.

         At trial, the Government presented the testimony of Wright's alleged co-conspirator, DeShaun Anderson. Anderson testified that he and Wright conspired to distribute heroin and cocaine in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and that he sold drugs only at Wright's direction. In contrast, Wright's counsel sought to persuade the jury that Anderson was lying about Wright's degree of control over him and that he sold drugs independently rather than as part of a conspiracy with Wright.

         Like Wright, Anderson also had a prior felony drug conviction and was charged with a conspiracy resulting in death and serious bodily injury. He agreed to plead guilty to the conspiracy charge and to testify against Wright in exchange for the Government declining to file a § 851 information, which would have resulted in a mandatory life sentence if he were convicted. During cross-examination, Wright's counsel attempted to show that Anderson was biased against Wright because he would have faced life in prison if he did not testify against Wright. Wright's counsel asked Anderson whether he was charged with "conspiracy to distribute that led to overdoses and deaths" and whether he had a "prior drug dealing conviction, " and Anderson responded affirmatively. Wright's counsel then began to ask Anderson whether he knew that, because he was charged with "conspiracy with overdoses and deaths" and had "a prior drug dealing conviction, " his only possible sentence would be life imprisonment. However, before Wright's counsel could say "life imprisonment, " the Government objected, and the district court held a sidebar.

         The district court explained to Wright's counsel that because the conspiracy charge was the same charge that Wright faced and because the Government would be introducing evidence that Wright also had a prior drug dealing conviction, he was effectively "telling the jury what the penalty is going to be if [Wright] is convicted." Thus, the court sustained the objection and prohibited Wright's counsel from specifying that Anderson faced life imprisonment, but it solicited suggestions on what Wright's counsel could say instead of "life imprisonment" to convey the severity of the penalty that Anderson would have faced if he did not cooperate. Wright's counsel proposed asking Anderson whether he would have been "facing a mandatory minimum penalty that could cost him decades of his life." The court approved this language, and Wright's counsel proceeded to cross-examine Anderson, who agreed that he "couldn't avoid that minimum sentence that would be decades of [his] life in any way other than cooperating with the government." After Wright's trial, Anderson was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment instead of life, as the Government declined to file a § 851 information in his case.

         During the trial, the Government also presented the testimony of thirteen customers of Wright and Anderson, most of whom testified that they saw the two men selling drugs together or that Anderson would deliver drugs after they had contacted Wright. They also testified about the injuries and deaths caused by the drugs distributed by Wright and Anderson.

         On March 1, 2016, the parties gave closing arguments and the case was submitted to the jury. The next day, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on all counts. However, following closing arguments, the Government learned for the first time that one of its customer-witnesses, Bonnie Schliemann, had previously cooperated with law enforcement as a confidential informant. The Government then contacted officers at the Cedar Rapids Police Department and learned that two other customer-witnesses, Amy Kiefer and Jason Gavin, also had previously cooperated with law enforcement. Finally, the Government learned that its case agent, Gregg Fox, paid $20 to another customer-witness, Glenden Belsha, for an unsuccessful attempt to purchase drugs from Wright. Upon discovering these facts, the Government disclosed this information on March 3, 2016.

         Wright filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that the Government's failure to disclose this information earlier violated his right to a fair trial under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). He also argued that the district court erred in admitting evidence of his prior felony conviction under Rule 404(b) and violated the Sixth Amendment's Confrontation Clause by limiting his cross-examination of Anderson. The district court denied the motion. It reasoned that although the information regarding the four witnesses was favorable to Wright and suppressed by the Government, it did not violate his right to a fair trial because it was not material to the outcome. It also held that it did not err in admitting the prior felony conviction and that it did not violate the Confrontation Clause. Wright now appeals.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Rule ...


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