D.C. Cir. Grants Ex-Airman New Murder Trial

     (CN) — A divided D.C. Circuit reversed the murder conviction of a former U.S. airman involved in the hazing death of an Army sergeant, based on a prosecutor’s misstatement during closing arguments.
     Rico Rodrigus Williams was stationed at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany in 2005 with his wife, who was also member of the U.S. Air Force. Williams was discharged for medical reasons.
     He led a group called the Brothers of the Struggle, which consisted of Army and Air Force members. Expert evidence connected the BOS to a gang called the Gangster Disciples, according to court records.
     Joining the BOS involved a ritual called the “jump-in,” during which a new member was beaten up by six members between the neck and the waist for six minutes.
     If the prospect endured the beating without quitting, he would be welcomed into the BOS and taken out for a celebration.
     Army Sgt. Juwan Johnson tried to join the BOS in July 2005. According to Williams’ second-in-command, Nicholas Sims, nine attackers participated in the jump-in rather than the usual six.
     Williams punched Johnson in the face twice before the others landed blows between the head and neck. The beating lasted even after the timekeeper yelled “time” on three occasions.
     After the jump-in, Johnson walked slowly and declined to go out for the celebration. He later asked to go to the hospital, but Williams said no.
     By morning, Johnson was dead. The autopsy noted brain and heart injuries and showed that he died of blunt-force trauma.
     Williams moved back to the U.S., and he was arrested in Virginia in 2009. He was charged with second-degree murder and two counts of witness tampering.
     Sims alleged that Williams told the BOS members that they should tell authorities that Johnson died after “Turkish people” attacked him. He added that Williams told the members that they would be “basically done for” if they told the truth.
     The second count of witness tampering alleged that Williams called Sims from the United States and ordered him to cover up a tattoo that indicated gang membership.
     During the trial, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman blocked a videotaped re-enactment of the beating, which had been produced by The History Channel for its “Gangland” series.
     Williams was convicted of murder and the first count of witness tampering. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison with a concurrent 10 years for the tampering charge. He was also ordered to pay $756,000 in restitution.
     Williams appealed, arguing that the evidence did not support the murder conviction. He noted that Johnson said several times during the jump-in that he wanted it to continue.
     On the other hand, testimony showed that Williams used a signature knockout punch called the “one-hitter quitter,” which he refused to use on the group’s female member because it “would kill her.”
     “A rational juror could infer from this evidence that Williams was aware of his own strength, understood that jump-ins could lead to serious injury or death, and knew that Johnson’s jump-in presented a more extreme risk than most initiations,” D.C. Circuit Judge Thomas B. Griffith wrote in a 34-page opinion. “From this evidence, the jury was entitled to find that Williams behaved with conscious disregard of an extreme risk to human life.”
     However, a prosecutorial misstatement of the law during closing arguments was enough for the D.C. Circuit to overturn Williams’ murder conviction on Friday. The appeals court remanded the case for a new trial.
     Regarding Johnson’s consent to the beating, the government attorney said, “It is not a defense…You can’t even consider it in his intent or anything else. You just cannot.”
     “Because the misstatement implicated a central issue—the state of mind with which Williams acted—and was not sufficiently cured, it requires reversal of Williams’ murder conviction,” Griffith wrote for a three-judge panel.
     The judge added, “Here, Johnson’s repeated insistence that he wanted the jump-in to continue might have signaled to Williams that Johnson was in no serious danger. And if Williams believed that, Williams could not have been aware of an extreme risk to human life.”
     Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote a concurring opinion, stating that if the jury had been instructed correctly, Williams could have been convicted of manslaughter rather than murder.
     “In a criminal appeal where a mens rea-related jury instruction issue may have made a difference to the conviction and sentence, it is critically important to ensure that the jury had a correct understanding of the relevant law,” Kavanaugh wrote. “That did not happen in this case, in my view.”
     Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson partially concurred and partially dissented from the majority.
     “The prosecutor misstated nothing,” she wrote. “The district court’s charge was correct and balanced. And the evidence of guilt was powerful. Because Williams received a trial that was error-free—and at all events fair—I would affirm his second-degree murder conviction.”
     Federal public defender A.J. Kramer declined to comment on the ruling.
     Assistant U.S. Attorney Stratton Strand did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

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