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United States v. Harris

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

April 2, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
DELEXSIA HARRIS, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 8:16-cr-00239-SCB-JSS-1

          Before JILL PRYOR and HULL, Circuit Judges, and PROCTOR, [*] District Judge.

          JILL PRYOR, Circuit Judge

         Several of Delexsia Harris's brothers were charged in federal court with a drug and racketeering conspiracy involving multiple murders. In an effort to secure her brothers' acquittal, Harris lied to law enforcement, encouraged a witness to provide false alibi testimony, and threatened individuals who might testify against her brothers. Harris was convicted of witness tampering and obstruction of justice. She now appeals her convictions, challenging several of the district court's evidentiary rulings. After careful review, and with the benefit of oral argument, we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Harris lived in a house on 24th Street in Bradenton, Florida, with her father, Napoleon Harris Sr., and her brothers, Charlie Green, Napoleon Harris Jr., and Nathaniel Harris. Another brother, Corey Harris, lived nearby. Harris's brothers often sold drugs and used the 24th Street house as a base for conducting some of their drug distribution activities. The following evidence was presented at trial.

         A. Ceola Lazier's Murder

         Green's girlfriend, Lashawn White, testified at Harris's trial that she overheard someone tell Green that another drug dealer named Ceola Lazier "want[ed] [Green] dead because he was . . . taking all of the drug money" from the drug business in the area. Doc. 97 at 40.[1] The next day, Green called Harris and asked her to meet him at White's house. When Harris arrived at White's house, Green told Harris that "he needed her to get [Lazier's] number because [Lazier] want[ed] . . . [Green] dead and they need[ed] to handle that." Id. at 42. Harris and Green then left White's house together.

         Later that day, Green visited several of his associates, including Christopher Barton and Willie Miller, at a house where they all sold drugs. Barton testified at trial that Green told the others he was looking for Nathaniel Harris's AR-15 rifle. Miller said that he had the rifle at his house, so Barton and Green went to Miller's house and retrieved it. They then headed to Green's house, where Green retrieved a second rifle-an AK-47.

         Green and Barton drove to White's house and exchanged Green's car for White's Ford Taurus. Then they drove to the Harrises' house on 24th Street. Later that same day, Jimmy Boyd, another of Green's associates, joined Green and Barton at the 24th Street house. The group discussed their plan to have Harris bring Lazier to the 24th Street house and then to kill him there. Barton questioned why Lazier would come to the 24th Street house amid his dispute with Green, who lived there, but Green told Barton not to worry because Harris "was going to bring him over there." Id. at 80-81. The group eventually went across the street to Boyd's house where they waited to execute the plan.

         Barton fell asleep later that night as they waited at Boyd's house. Green woke Barton up in the early morning hours and told him that they had "almost missed a text, " meaning a text message from Harris, and that the plan was going into motion. Id. at 81. As the others in the group checked their guns and put black t-shirts over their faces as masks, Barton-tasked with serving as the getaway driver-went outside and started the car. A few seconds later, Barton heard "30 or 40" gun shots. Doc. 96 at 217. Green and one of the other men then ran to the car and jumped in, and Barton drove them away.

         Harris, who had spent the evening with Lazier, called 911 and reported that she and Lazier had been followed by a white truck and that people in the truck had started shooting at them when she got out of Lazier's car in front of the 24th Street house. Harris told the 911 operator that she thought Lazier was dead inside the car. She also reported that the white truck, which she identified as a Mercedes Benz, had sped off.

         The police officer dispatched to the scene found Lazier's car, which had been shot on both sides and through the windshield. Lazier's body was inside the car in the driver's seat. Bullet casings were strewn across the road.

         B. The Investigation of Lazier's Murder

         Bradenton Police Department Detective James Curulla met with Harris at the police station hours after the murder. The video of Curulla's interview with Harris was played for the jury during Harris's trial. In the interview, Harris reported the incident to Curulla as follows. Harris was with her boyfriend, Lazier, outside of his grandmother's house in Palmetto, Florida, when a white Mercedes Benz truck began driving around them. Harris became frightened and asked Lazier to take her home. The truck followed them as they stopped at a gas station along the way. After they left the gas station, they drove to the 24th Street house. As soon as they arrived there, the truck drove at them from the opposite direction on 24th Street. When Harris got out of the car, two men jumped out of the truck and started shooting. Harris ran from the scene and was unable to see the shooters' faces. She noticed, however, that the shooters were wearing all black and carrying large rifles. Harris told Curulla that a few days earlier Lazier had been in a fight with somebody from Palmetto over drug money.

         White testified that Harris left the police station and went to White's house, where she told White what had happened. Harris told White that she had contacted Lazier at Green's request and that she and Lazier had gone out for dinner together. After dinner, Lazier had driven her back to the 24th Street house, and-while still in Lazier's car-Harris had pretended to take a phone call from a friend. After she hung up, Green and another man had come from behind a house and started shooting at Lazier's car. As Harris was explaining to White what had happened, Green arrived at White's house and asked Harris what she had told the police. Harris replied that she had not told the police anything. White went outside to see if Green had returned her car and found a stretched out black t-shirt in the backseat.

         While Harris was at White's house, Curulla investigated the scene of Lazier's murder. By examining the shell casings he found, Curulla determined that the shots had come from two different guns, an AR-15 and an AK-47. Based on the location of the shell casings, Curulla determined-contrary to what Harris had told him-that the vehicle containing the shooters could not have driven toward Lazier's vehicle from the opposite direction on 24th Street. A vehicle driving from the opposite direction would have driven over the shell casings-which remained intact on the road-as it left the scene.

         Curulla acquired several surveillance videos that also contradicted Harris's account. First, a surveillance video from a nearby business showed that Lazier and Harris had not taken the route that Harris had described to Curulla. This video also showed that no white vehicle had been following them. Second, footage from a camera at a traffic light along the route where Harris said she and Lazier had traveled failed to show that they were followed by a white vehicle. A third video, taken from the gas station where Lazier and Harris had stopped, showed that no white Mercedes Benz truck had been at the gas station at the same time as Lazier and Harris. The gas station video did reveal, however, that a different white truck-likely a Cadillac or Chevrolet-had been at the gas station that night.

         A few days after Lazier's murder, Curulla took Harris on a "ride-along, " meaning they traveled together along the route that Harris claimed to have driven with Lazier on the night of the murder, beginning at Lazier's grandmother's house. Harris was "adamant" that the truck that had followed them was a Mercedes Benz, noting that she had been able to "see the Mercedes emblem" as she looked in the side-view mirror of Lazier's car. Doc. 98 at 121-23. But when Curulla confronted Harris with the fact that the gas station video ...

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