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United States v. Lafond

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

April 20, 2015


Page 1217

Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. D.C. Docket No. 1:13-cr-00092-WSD-LTW-1.

For United States of America, Plaintiff - Appellee (14-12574): Nekia Shantel Hackworth, Brent Alan Gray, Lawrence R. Sommerfeld, Sally Yates, U.S. Attorney's Office, Atlanta, GA.

For Donald R. Lafond, Jr., Defendant - Appellant (14-12574): David H. Jones, David H. Jones, Esq., Atlanta, GA; Donald R. Lafond Jr., Florence, CO.

For Jason Robert Widdison, Defendant - Appellant (14-12574): Derek Harrison Jones, Law Office of Derek H. Jones, Atlanta, GA; Jason Robert Widdison, Florence, CO.

Before TJOFLAT, WILLIAM PRYOR, and BALDOCK,[*] Circuit Judges.


Page 1218

WILLIAM PRYOR, Circuit Judge.

These consolidated appeals of Donald R. LaFond, Jr.'s, and Jason Robert Widdison's convictions for second degree murder, 18 U.S.C. § 1111, require us to decide whether the district court abused its discretion in four rulings: the admission of evidence of the defendants' memberships in gangs; an order that the jurors be identified anonymously; a refusal to give two requested jury instructions about self-defense; and an order that Widdison's hands remain shackled during his sentencing hearing. Widdison and LaFond, both

Page 1219

of whom were inmates in a federal prison, attacked Kenneth Mills, another inmate, who died a month later from his injuries. The government presented evidence that Widdison and LaFond were members of white supremacist gangs who attacked Mills, a white inmate, because he refused to take any action to have his black cellmate replaced. Widdison and LaFond responded that they acted in self-defense after Mills drew a knife to attack LaFond. A jury convicted Widdison and LaFond of second degree murder. Both Widdison and LaFond raise the issue about the admission of evidence of their gang memberships, and Widdison raises the other three issues. We conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it admitted evidence of the defendants' memberships in gangs to prove motive or intent, when it ordered that the jurors be identified anonymously to protect their safety, and when it refused to give jury instructions about self-defense that were unsupported by the evidence. We also hold that the constitutional rule against shackling does not apply to a sentencing hearing before a judge. We affirm.


Widdison and LaFond were cellmates in the special housing unit at the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. Widdison was a member of the Soldiers of Aryan Culture and LaFond was a member of the Aryan Resistance Militia. Mills was also an inmate in the special housing unit and had a black cellmate. When Widdison and LaFond pressured Mills to take actions to have his cellmate replaced, Mills refused.

On March 1, 2011, Widdison and LaFond were sharing a workout cage, and the prison guards placed Mills in the same cage. When Mills turned his back to them, Widdison and LaFond knocked Mills to the ground and repeatedly stomped and kicked Mills on his head and chest. After Mills died from his injuries, a federal grand jury indicted Widdison and LaFond for one count of second-degree murder, 18 U.S.C. § 1111.

Before trial, Widdison and LaFond filed motions in limine to prevent the government from introducing evidence of their gang memberships. Widdison argued that the evidence would violate Federal Rule of Evidence 404, and LaFond argued that it would violate Rule 403. The district court denied both motions because the evidence proved intent, which was " a central issue," and the probative value of the evidence was not substantially outweighed by its prejudice.

At the beginning of voir dire, the district court asked the prospective jurors if anyone " would have a hard time" " setting aside any personal beliefs or . . . ideas." Two jurors responded and asked to talk privately. At sidebar, prospective juror number nine asked if " the defendants have a list of [the jurors'] names," and the district court explained that the lawyers, but not the defendants, had the list. The prospective juror explained that she was " very uncomfortable," that she had " see[n] papers being passed back and forth," and that she was " shaking like a leaf."

After the district court excused the juror from sidebar, the district court ruled that the jurors would be identified by only their numbers. Widdison's lawyer objected because the procedure would " give[] the idea that the[] [defendants] are so desperate that . . . no reasonable juror would be asked to give their name, and . . . that just puts a really prejudicial twist on this [trial]." The district court overruled the objection because it did not " know who [the defendants] kn[e]w outside of the courthouse" and " courts have commonly allowed people to be called by their numbers

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and not their names because of safety concerns."

The district court then continued its sidebar with the attorneys, while the clerk distributed cards with numbers to the jurors. After the district court interviewed four other prospective jurors at sidebar, the district court instructed the prospective jurors to identify themselves by number and ...

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