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United States v. McIntyre

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

May 17, 2018




         Before the court are motions to sever filed by Defendants James Earl McIntyre (Doc. # 415), James Lee Hamilton (Doc. # 427), Eric Kendall Smith (Doc. # 425), and Tyquavious Roequan Mitchell (Doc. # 443). Each Defendant argues that his trial should be severed from those of his co-Defendants to avert prejudice inherent in a joint trial. The Government filed a response in opposition to the motions. (Doc. # 446.) While joint trials have a certain amount of inherent prejudice, a trial severance requires a showing of compelling prejudice. After consideration of the written submissions and the parties' oral arguments, the court finds that Defendants have not demonstrated compelling prejudice and that the motions to sever are due to be denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The thirty-seven-count superseding indictment implicates nineteen Defendants in drug-trafficking and money-laundering conspiracies and related substantive offenses. Smith, Mitchell, and McIntyre, along with twelve other Defendants, are indicted in a common conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, including cocaine and marijuana, in Lee and Montgomery counties. Hamilton and four of his co-Defendants are charged in a money-laundering conspiracy in Lee County. The money-laundering conspiracy allegedly operated for the purpose of concealing the proceeds of the drug-trafficking conspiracy.

         Also, Smith, Mitchell, and McIntyre are charged with substantive offenses occurring during the same time frame of the drug-trafficking conspiracy. Smith is named in six of the thirty-seven counts. (Doc. # 174.) In addition to allegedly participating in the drug-trafficking conspiracy (Count 1), Smith faces trial on two counts of possessing with the intent to distribute controlled substances (cocaine hydrochloride and marijuana) (Counts 13 and 14), two counts of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime (Counts 15 and 19), and one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm (Count 16). Mitchell is charged with possessing with intent to distribute marijuana (Count 14) and with possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime (Count 15). And McIntyre faces three substantive counts (Counts 35, 36, and 37) for using a cell phone to facilitate the drug-trafficking conspiracy.

         As sketched out in the briefing and at oral argument, the Government expects to prove at trial that Smith, Mitchell, McIntyre, and Hamilton each played a role in one of the illicit conspiracies. The Government intends to introduce seized home video surveillance of the interior of a mobile home that depicts Smith's and Mitchell's actions after the mobile home was riddled by gunfire in a drive-by shooting on September 16, 2016. The Government contends that the home video, which the undersigned has watched, depicts Smith and Mitchell, as well as co-Defendants Worldly Holstick and Timothy Lamar Spinks, hurriedly gathering drugs and drug paraphernalia to rid the home of contraband before escaping themselves[1]. Additionally, the Government asserts that a freeze-frame image shows Mitchell with a firearm in his hand. Furthermore, as to Smith, the Government represents that still-images from a pole camera show Smith and Holstick, an alleged leader in the drug-trafficking organization, toting firearms outside of a “drug house.”

         As to McIntyre, the Government expects to prove his involvement in the drug-trafficking conspiracy through intercepted cell phone communications between McIntyre and Holstick. More specifically, the Government contends that these communications show that McIntyre provided Holstick mailing addresses in the Middle District of Alabama for the shipment of marijuana from out of state.

         Concerning Hamilton, the Government asserts that it expects to prove at trial that he maintained bank accounts in California in which proceeds from sales of marijuana were deposited. The Government categorizes Hamilton as the “banker” for the marijuana side of the narcotics conspiracy.


         Defendants contend that they will suffer compelling prejudice in a joint trial and that, therefore, a severance is required. “The decision whether to grant a severance lies within the district court's sound and substantial discretion.” United States v. Mosquera, 886 F.3d 1032, 1041 (11th Cir. 2018). “There is a preference in the federal system for joint trials of defendants who are indicted together.” Zafiro v. United States, 506 U.S. 534, 539 (1993). “Joint trials play a vital role in the criminal justice system and serve important interests: they reduce the risk of inconsistent verdicts and the unfairness inherent in serial trials, lighten the burden on victims and witnesses, increase efficiency, and conserve scarce judicial resources.” United States v. Lopez, 649 F.3d 1222, 1233 (11th Cir. 2011). The general rule, especially in conspiracy cases, is that “‘defendants who are indicted together are usually tried together.'” Id. at 1234 (quoting United States v. Browne, 505 F.3d 1229, 1268 (11th Cir. 2007)). The rule, however, is not “ironclad.” Id.

         “If the joinder of . . . defendants in an indictment . . . appears to prejudice a defendant . . ., the court may order separate trials of counts, sever the defendants' trials, or provide any other relief that justice requires.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 14. However, to warrant a severance, the prejudice must be “specific and compelling.” United States v. Cobb, 185 F.3d 1193, 1197 (11th Cir. 1999) (citation and internal quotations omitted). Often, “less drastic measures, such as limiting instructions, . . . will suffice to cure any risk of prejudice” from a joint trial. Zafiro, 506 U.S. at 538-39; see also United States v. Baker, 432 F.3d 1189, 1237 (11th Cir. 2005) (“Severance is justified as a remedy only if the prejudice flowing from a joint trial is clearly beyond the curative powers of” any instructions the trial court might give.).

         The Eleventh Circuit has recognized limited circumstances where prejudice to a defendant from a joint trial may warrant a severance. Two of those circumstances are (1) “where a cumulative and prejudicial ‘spillover' may prevent the jury from sifting through the evidence to make an individualized determination of guilt as to each defendant” and (2) “where inculpatory evidence will be admitted against one defendant that is not admissible against another.” Mosquera, 886 F.3d at 1041-42; see also Lopez, 649 F.3d at 1234 (because of the presumption favoring joint trials of conspiracy cases, “[t]he exceptional circumstances justifying a deviation from the rule . . . are few and far between”). Urging separate trials, Defendants invoke the prejudicial spillover theory; Hamilton also relies on the inculpatory-evidence theory.

         Smith, Mitchell, and McIntyre contend that there will be a prejudicial evidentiary spillover based upon the disparity of their involvement in the alleged drug-trafficking conspiracy as compared to their co-Defendants' involvement. Hamilton argues that, because he is not charged in any of the counts pertaining to the drug-trafficking conspiracy and related offenses, he must be tried separately from the Defendants who are charged with those offenses to avoid compelling prejudice. Hamilton also argues that incriminating evidence pertaining to the drug-trafficking conspiracy and the use of firearms and cell phones to facilitate that offense is not admissible against him to prove the “distinctly different” money-laundering conspiracy. (Doc. # 427, at 4.)

         Defendants have not met their heavy burden to demonstrate compelling prejudice to justify severance. Defendants share the argument that there is only a molehill of evidence as to their guilt, but a mountain of evidence against their co-Defendants. To begin, the molehill argument does not bode well for Smith. At oral argument, the Government stated that it expects to prove at trial that Smith was “at the heart of the conspiracy.” It contends that the trial evidence will implicate Smith in activities evincing his substantial involvement in trafficking marijuana and cocaine and his use of firearms in furtherance of the drug-trafficking crimes. Additionally, Smith, who is named in six counts of the superseding indictment, faces more charges than fifteen of his co-Defendants. This is not the sort ...

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