Monday, December 29, 2008



No. 08-9872 C

The United States of America, Petitioner-Appellant
Willie Wilson, Respondent-Appellee.



A. Coldwater, J.

In this case, the United States appeals from a post-trial finding that the jury’s verdict against Respondent Willie Wilson (hereinafter “Wilson”) was against the manifest weight of the evidence.

Following a 12-day jury trial, a jury constituted in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia found Wilson guilty of Aggravated First Degree Murder. Acting sua sponte, the trial Judge, Hon. Charles F. Licht, reversed the jury’s verdict on the ground that: “No reasonable juror could have reasonably ignored compelling inculpatory statements made by an unavailable witnesses. Any reasonable juror would have evaluated these statements in such a manner as to cast reasonable doubt on the guilt of the accused. In this case, justice requires that the jury’s verdict be rejected.” The United States objected to the trial Judge’s ruling. The trial Judge overruled the objections. The United States timely appealed, arguing that the trial Judge had no authority to ignore the jury’s finding of fact without “evidence of wrongdoing in the jury deliberation process.” Counsel for Respondent Wilson urges us to sustain the trial Judge’s ruling on the rationale that “justice dictates the Judge’s action.” Wilson further points out that the jury was solely composed of white individuals, while Wilson is black.


The record discloses the following facts. On August 21, 2006, Willie Wilson was at home in Atlanta. He lived in a self-described “ high-crime neighborhood” where drug deals were common. At approximately 11 PM, Wilson heard a “loud noise” in front of his house. Because his house had been burglarized several times in the past, he grabbed a 9mm pistol and put it in his waistband before walking outside. He went outside, where he saw six or seven youths struggling on the sidewalk about 50 feet away. He also said he saw a “flashy metal object” passing between them. About 10 seconds later, Wilson said he realized it was a pistol. Soon thereafter, one youth pointed the gun at another and fired. The group scattered in all directions, leaving the injured man behind. Wilson went over to the man, whose name was Tyrone Gibbons. Gibbons was bleeding profusely from the stomach and gasped for air. Wilson said he told Gibbons: “Everything is going to be all right; you just have to hang in there.” Over defense counsel’s objections, the jury also heard Wilson testify that Gibbons told him: “I never should have gotten involved with Rock. That (expletive) is a killer. I’m dying, man. Ain’t nothing going to stop that now.” While attempting to help Gibbons, Wilson got blood on his hands and clothing. At some point thereafter, Gibbons died.

Approximately four minutes later, four police cruisers arrived on the scene. Officers found Wilson perched over Gibbons’ bleeding body. One officer testified it appeared that Wilson was “looking for something” in the injured man’s jacket. Officers commanded Wilson to “step away from the body” and “put his hands above his head.” Wilson complied, but allegedly shouted: “It wasn’t me! Rock did it! I’m just trying to help this kid.” The officers placed Wilson under arrest. They found the pistol in his waistband. Later that evening, Wilson was charged with Aggravated First Degree murder.

Police made no further arrests in Wilson’s case. Wilson was the only suspect. Ballistics reports showed that a 9mm pistol bullet killed Gibbons. Investigators also determined that there was one bullet missing from Wilson’s ammunition clip. But investigators could not determine whether the pistol had been fired that night. Wilson said he had fired one bullet from the pistol at a gun club about a week before the incident. During interrogations, Wilson adamantly maintained his innocence. He told the detectives what Gibbons told him before he died. He also said that “Rock” was a notorious drug dealer who hustled in Wilson’s neighborhood, often with violence. The detectives said that Rock was not a suspect in Wilson’s case. The Deputy United States Attorney urged Wilson to plead guilty because, according to Wilson, he “had the goods to fry his ass.” Wilson refused to plead guilty.

Before his trial, Wilson received word from his appointed attorney that “Rock” had been arrested for narcotics distribution and racketeering in New York. His attorney reported that he had another client who had been cellmates with Rock in a New York jail. During a conversation with this client on an unrelated case, Wilson’s attorney heard that “Rock” joked about killing a youth named Gibbons in Atlanta with his “Glock,” and that no one could touch him because he paid off members of the Atlanta city government. In street language, a “Glock” refers to a 9mm pistol. “Rock” is currently on bail in New York awaiting trial, beyond the power of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia to summon him to testify.

Six months later, a jury in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia found Wilson guilty of Aggravated First Degree Murder. The jury said it believed beyond a reasonable doubt that the ballistics evidence and officers’ eyewitness accounts immediately after the shooting established that Wilson intentionally killed Gibbons “for the purpose of stealing drug proceeds.” Although counsel for the United States objected, the jury also heard Wilson’s story about Rock’s alleged confession in New York. The jury did not find Wilson’s story credible and returned a guilty verdict after only 10 minutes’ deliberation.

Acting sua sponte, trial Judge Charles F. Licht peremptorily reversed the jury’s finding. Noting that Wilson’s evidence, objectively viewed, “would weigh heavily upon the conscience of a reasonable juror,” Licht concluded that “it would offend notions of justice and right to convict a man about whose guilt for a capital crime there is clearly reasonable doubt.” Judge Licht observed that there was “nothing in the record to make a reasonable juror disbelieve Wilson’s testimony, and no just rule of law should preclude a reasonable juror from believing Rock’s inculpatory story.” In sum, Judge Licht wrote: “To find Wilson guilty of Aggravated First Degree Murder on this evidence would be to disserve the very foundations of justice that the law and the Constitution are intended to protect.”

The United States appealed, contending: “Judge Licht’s preposterous actions set a new standard for judicial lawlessness.”


Under long settled principles, a Federal Court will not disturb a jury’s factual conclusions unless its conclusions are “clearly erroneous.” Neither a trial judge on a post-trial motion, nor a Court of Appeals on direct appeal may ignore a jury’s factual conclusions if the jury’s conclusions are “plausible in light of the record in its entirety.” Anderson v. Bessemer, 470 U.S. 564, 573-574 (1985). This standard vindicates the common law’s respect for the jury as an institution. In our system, we trust everyday people to use their common sense, intelligence and perception to determine facts. If judges could merely cast aside their conclusions, juries would have no power at all. Juries exist to protect constitutional liberties from government authority. Our “clearly erroneous” standard of review exists to give juries the discretion they need to protect liberty.

In this case, it was entirely “plausible in light of the record in its entirety” for the jury to conclude that Wilson intentionally killed Gibbons with a purpose to steal drug proceeds. Several officers testified that they saw Wilson huddled over Gibbons’ body “looking for something.” The jury also heard that Wilson had a pistol that matched the caliber of the bullet that killed Gibbons. The fact that Wilson’s pistol had one bullet missing from its ammunition clip only strengthens the inference that that bullet killed Gibbons. The jury was entitled to disbelieve Wilson’s explanation that he “fired one bullet at a gun club” one week before the incident. It is not for a trial judge—or an Appeals Court—to criticize the jury’s common sense conclusions simply because the Court feels “something else could have happened.” The jury’s conclusion was “plausible.” That ends our factual inquiry. We do not dwell on “possibilities.” We examine whether the evidence “plausibly” supports a jury’s conclusion. That is all. What “actually happened” has no bearing on our legal analysis.

We hold further that Judge Licht committed legal error in admitting the “Rock” story as evidence. Generally speaking, Rock’s story constituted hearsay. It was a statement made out-of-court offered to prove that Wilson did not intentionally kill Gibbons. Federal Rule of Evidence 801(c). Hearsay is categorically inadmissible at trial under Federal Rule of Evidence 802, unless it meets the exceptions prescribed explicitly in Rules 803 or 804.

Judge Licht concluded that Rock’s story was admissible under Federal Rule 804(b)(3) as a “statement against interest.” We strongly disagree. Under Federal Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3), “statements against interest” made by “unavailable” declarants are admissible as exceptions to the hearsay rule. But admissibility under this exception is difficult to establish, especially for so-called “inculpatory statements offered to exculpate the accused,” such as Rock’s story. In pertinent part, Rule 804(b)(3) bars such statements unless “corroborating circumstances clearly indicate the trustworthiness of the statement (emphasis added).”

In this case, there is virtually nothing that corroborates Rock’s story. Wilson offers nothing but a third-hand report from his attorney that some felon in New York heard Rock confess to Gibbons’ murder. There is nothing objectively credible about this. In fact, if believed, it totally exonerates Wilson, so he has every incentive in the world to fabricate it. Wilson’s attorney swears in an affidavit that he heard about Rock’s story without any prompting from Wilson. This is irrelevant. Under Federal Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3) we do not examine whether the offered statement was “prompted” by a request from the accused; we simply look to see whether there are “circumstances that clearly indicate” the statement’s trustworthiness. Here, we find the Rock story utterly incredible and self-serving. Moreover, there is not a shred of objective evidence that even remotely suggests that the story is anything but blatant fabrication. It would be fantastic to suggest that “corroborating circumstances clearly indicate” that Rock’s story is credible. In that light, we hold that it was legal error for Judge Licht to admit the statement in the first place.

Our conclusions require us to remand this case to the District Court for the Northern District of Georgia with instructions to reinstate the jury’s verdict. Prior to disposing of this case, however, we must make several important observations concerning Judge Licht’s conduct at the trial. We agree with the United States’ argument that Judge Licht “set a new standard for judicial lawlessness” in this case. Judge Licht ignored his oath to defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States by invoking such nonsense as ‘notions of justice and right,’ ‘the very foundations of justice and law that the Constitution was intended to protect,’ and the ‘heavy weight of conscience’ upon a ‘reasonable juror.’

These ‘notions’ are not legal authority. Judges do not have a free hand to ignore juries simply because they think they know what is ‘just’ and ‘right.’ We follow written laws, not conscience. In this case, both established written precedent and the Federal Rules of Evidence required Judge Licht to bar hearsay testimony and to uphold the jury’s factual conclusions. Judges do not intuit. We do not seek justice. We seek only to apply written standards, no matter what we actually think about the evidence tendered. Conscience, justice and right have absolutely nothing to do with our legal analysis, and Judge Licht’s conduct in this case represents a dangerous break from acceptable judicial practice. Are judges free to ignore juries simply because they think the jury acts unjustly? Surely not. If a jury acts upon a “plausible view of the record,” judges have nothing more to say about it. It may bother our conscience. It may even insult our view of justice. But that does not entitle us to contradict the jury’s factual conclusions, especially when written standards clearly command us to respect them. In sum, we squarely reject Wilson’s argument that “Justice dictates Judge Licht’s action.” We respond that law dictates our judicial actions, not justice.

Judge Licht seems to think that he is a philosopher prince with the power to determine just results. Yet the judge is not a philosopher; the judge is a technician who applies written standards. We are a nation of written laws. It would gravely upset our entire system of justice if judges began pursuing “right” and “conscience” in every case. That is not our system, and we refuse to travel in that direction.

We strongly suggest that Congress take disciplinary action against Judge Licht for his gross disrespect for American law.

REVERSED AND REMANDED, with instructions to enter a GUILTY verdict for Aggravated First Degree Murder.

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