(CN) - A man suspected of faking a carjacking and murdering his wife was properly convicted of domestic violence and attempted witness intimidation, the 4th Circuit ruled.
The events transpired in June 2009 when an early morning 911 call reported that a woman had possibly been stabbed in connection with a carjacking near Crumpton, Md. Officers found Serika Dunkley dead in a field, stabbed 11 times, shortly thereafter.
Dunkley's cousin Ryan Holness, a Jamaican man with whom she had entered into a marriage of convenience, stood on a porch 500 yards away, shaking, shoeless and wet from earlier rainfall.
Holness, a Navy air traffic controller, later told officers that he and Dunkley had been carjacked at a rest stop the night before. He said Dunkley tried to flee while the assailant bound him with duct tape, that he watched the masked carjacker give chase, and then heard Dunkley's dying screams. The carjacker allegedly returned to finish tying up and gagging Holness, knocked him out and split in his Honda.
Suspicious of this story, officers took a bloodhound to the crime scene.
The bloodhound revealed that Holness had made several stops in the exact opposite direction that he claimed to have taken, and two witnesses confirmed possibly seeing and hearing Holness during the time he alleged he was unconscious.
A medical exam of Holness also revealed no evidence of head trauma that would have caused him to lose consciousness.
More suspicious physical evidence included a lack of tape residue on Holness' wrists, ankles or clothing. A gash on his arm similarly had no match on the shirt he had been wearing.
Holness' DNA was found, however, at various spots on a roll of unused duct tape discovered on the side of the road, and his clothing was checkered with chips of what appeared to be Dunkley's fingernail polish.
Computer records showed that Holness had searched bus companies one week earlier, and one of those companies had a D.C. stop one block away from where officers recovered the "carjacked" Honda.
Police believed they found their smoking gun when they learned Holness had taken out a $500,000 life insurance policy on Dunkley seven months before her death.
After Holness had been jailed on murder charges, his cellmate Stephen Mcgrath informed the Kent County prosecutor that he had "unique information regarding Ryan Holness," including "some interesting stuff which led me to believe he actually killed his wife."
Police cautioned McGrath against asking Holness any direct questions for the remainder of his sentence, but invited him to continue passing along any relevant information while he remained cellmates with Holness.
With McGrath's help, investigators found that Holness had written a letter to the Washington Post and other area newspapers in the voice of his purported carjacker to make them think that Dunkley's killer was still at large.
State prosecutors dropped the charges against Holness so that the U.S. government could step in with counts of interstate domestic violence, attempted obstruction of an official proceeding, attempted witness intimidation and fraudulent use of a passport.
A Baltimore federal judge refused to suppress all of McGrath's statements, and the cellmate eventually testified how Holness had described his disposal of the murder weapon: throwing the knife in the river.
This allegation was consistent with the path to the river that the bloodhound had taken while going over the crime scene.
Holness was sentenced to life in prison with a 240-month concurrent term for interstate domestic violence and attempted witness intimidation in 2011.
A three-judge panel in Richmond, Va., affirmed Monday, finding that McGrath had not been illegally interrogating Holness so much as acting as a "listening post."
"The question, then, is whether Holness had invoked, and not waived, his entitlements under the Fifth Amendment - either his right to counsel or his privilege against self-incrimination - at the time he made his incriminating statements in McGrath's presence," Judge Robert King wrote for the panel. "Holness had earlier waived both rights, first at his initial interview and then again that same day upon reinitiating contact ... for the purpose of returning to the crime scene to reenact his version of the events."
Since Holness did manage to reassert his Fifth Amendment protections after realizing that police would not be persuaded of his innocence, the court said that "any statements or acts attributable to Holness after McGrath's meeting with Sergeant Hall ... were obtained in contravention of the Fifth Amendment."
The panel nevertheless found it unnecessary to further develop this issue since "any Fifth Amendment error was, under the circumstances of this case, harmless beyond a reasonable doubt."
"Beyond the potential risk of taint presented by protions of McGrath's testimony, the evidence of Holness's guilt went far beyond mere sufficiency," King wrote. "Given the entirety of the circumstances, we are satisfied to say that the district court's judgment, entered on the jury's guilty verdict, could not have been substantially swayed by the evidence that may have been admitted in violation of the Fifth Amendmnet. That being that case, we are convinced that any constitutional error in Holness's trial did not contribute to his convitions and was therefore harmless."
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