(CN) – The Supreme Court on Monday backtracked on its decision to review the claims of a man sentenced to 20 years in prison on drug charges.
“The writ of certiorari is dismissed as improvidently granted,” the unsigned order states, simply.
Without high court intervention, which had been ordered in November, the final say on the case comes from the 7th Circuit. In March, the Chicago-based federal appeals court had rejected claims by Alexander Vasquez that the trial judge committed several errors.
Vasquez’s lawyer and an assistant to the U.S. solicitor general argued their positions before the high court on March 21.
At oral arguments, the justices seemed dissatisfied with the claims Vasquez’s lawyer, Beau Brindley, made about the harmless-error analysis.
“You want us to say – you want us to say we’re reversing you, Seventh Circuit panel, because you said what we have said in prior cases, but we were wrong?” Justice Samuel Alito asked Brindley at the conclusion of the hearing.
Earlier, Justice Antonin Scalia was critical when Brindley said that, as long as an error contributed to a verdict, it does not matter whether the same verdict would have been pronounced absent that evidence.
“Well, then, what is harmless error?” Scalia asked. “Every error is harmful. Every error that’s – that’s there contributes to the verdict. There’s no such thing as harmless error.”
A jury convicted Vasquez of participating in a botched 2008 deal to buy a kilogram of cocaine in Illinois. The evidence admitted at trial showed that Vasquez was wary of driving to an unplanned location for the purchase his friend, Carlos Cruz, had arranged.
These apparent suspicions were on track since the seller, Alejandro Diaz, was cooperating with police.
When Vasquez, Cruz and a third man, Joel Perez, told Diaz on the phone that they would not move to a new location to complete the deal, Diaz alerted his handler with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“Perez told Cruz to tell Diaz that ‘we got the money here,'” according to the 7th Circuit. “Vasquez repeated the statement, ‘tell him we got the money here.’ Cruz hung up with the understanding that Diaz was returning to complete the deal.”
Vasquez and Perez were sitting in a black Bonneville parked at a Denny’s restaurant. Cruz was standing beside the car. When officers descended on the parking lot, Cruz surrendered as Vasquez tried to flee.
He drove the Bonneville into two police cruisers, nearly ran down an officer, ditched the car a few minutes later and fled on foot. Vasquez and Perez split up, but officers still managed to quickly apprehend them. During the arrest, they retrieved cellphones the men had dropped and they found $23,000 in cash, hidden in a secret compartment of the Bonneville.
While Perez and Cruz pleaded guilty, Vasquez alone took his case to trial.
After he was convicted, he claimed prosecutors should not have been able to introduce evidence of his prior cocaine conviction or of phone conversations Perez had with his wife, as recorded by the Metropolitan Correctional Facility. He also said the court did not let him properly cross-examine a DEA agent at trial and improperly admitted evidence of the hidden money, which was seized from the car without a warrant.
The 7th Circuit had no sympathy for each of these claims, specifically noting that “the search issue is a dead-bang loser.”
But the issue of the phone conversation between Perez and his wife, Marina, was a thornier one for the court to resolve.
As a witness for Vasquez, Marina had offered testimony supporting the idea that Vasquez had been an innocent bystander who was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Prosecutors rebutted this idea with conversations she had with Perez in prison, appearing to show that Marina could have lied to try and get a lower sentence for her husband.
“The jury also heard Marina tell her husband that Vasquez’s lawyer also said ‘everybody is going to lose’ if they go to trial,” according to the court.
Though the majority of the panel did not find an error here, one member of the panel dissented, saying tapes were inadmissible and that the errors in admitting the tapes were harmless.
In his petition to the Supreme Court, Vasquez focused on the issue of harmless error. He argued that the 7th Circuit erred in not considering the how it would affect the jury to hear the defendant’s lawyer say “everyone is going to lose” if all three alleged co-conspirators went to trial. Vasquez said the 7th Circuit violated his right to a fair trial by failing to consider the effects of that error.