Appellate Court Vacates Convictions for Obstruction of Justice, Finding that Jury Could Not Reasonably Infer Required Elements of the Offense

If a criminal charge requires a jury to draw inferences from a defendant’s statements or conduct, the inferences must be more than simple speculation or conjecture, according to the court in Harrison v. United States, ___ A.3d ___, Nos. 10-CF-147 and 10-CF-148, slip op. (D.C. App., Dec. 20, 2012). The court, while affirming a conviction for first-degree murder, vacated convictions for obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. It ruled that the evidence presented by the prosecution as to the obstruction charges, which mostly involved transcripts of phone conversations between the defendant and his father, required the jury to make too many inferences to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Cyrus Harrison was convicted of first-degree murder for a September 24, 2007 shooting in northeast Washington DC. Harrison’s friend, Keith West, Jr., witnessed the killing and was called as a witness by the prosecution in Harrison’s 2009 murder trial. Prosecutors charged Harrison with obstruction of justice and conspiracy charges in August 2009, after the murder trial, based on a series of phone conversations between Harrison and his father, and an in-person conversation between Harrison’s father and West’s father.

According to evidence presented by the prosecution at Harrison’s obstruction trial, Harrison first asked his father about West during a telephone call from the DC jail on June 20, 2009. Harrison asked him to get West’s phone number so he could “catch up” with him. Slip op. at 7. On June 25, Harrison referred to West as “Shorty” and said that he heard “Shorty [was] supposed to come back” later that week, to which his father replied “that don’t sound good” and “it might not be nothing,” supposedly in reference to Harrison’s murder trial scheduled to begin July 6. Id. at 7-8. On July 4, Harrison asked his father “did they ever take care of Shorty?” and his father replied that “they” talked to West’s father, but not West. Id. at 8. West’s father, Keith West, Sr., testified at Harrison’s second trial that Harrison’s father spoke to him in person in June 2009 regarding West’s court appearance. Harrison’s father allegedly told him that “all [West] had to do is stay away…, then everything will be okay.” Id. at 9. West, Sr. said he took this as a threat.

At the end of the obstruction trial, Harrison moved for acquittal. The trial court denied the motion, ruling that the “nexus” between the phone calls and the conversation between Harrison’s and West’s fathers was sufficient to allow a jury to reasonably infer the elements of obstruction of justice. Harrison appealed, specifically arguing a lack of evidence of intent to obstruct justice.

The appellate court vacated the obstruction and conspiracy convictions, but affirmed the murder conviction. The prosecution, the court found, presented no direct evidence that Harrison intended to prevent or influence West’s testimony, and so the jury had to rely on the inferences it could draw from circumstantial evidence. The court cited several cases regarding the high standard of the “beyond a reasonable doubt” burden of proof, noting the requirement that juries cannot depend on “conjecture and speculation.” Rivas v. United States, 783 A.2d 125, 134 (D.C. App. 2001), quoting Curry v. United States, 520 A.2d 255, 263 (D.C. App. 1987).

To get from the evidence presented regarding Mr. Harrison’s statements to a conclusion of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the court held, required the jury to make “at least four connected inferences. Harrison, slip op. at 18. No rational juror could have reached a conclusion, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the evidence showed an intent to influence West’s testimony. Id. at 25.

Michael J. Brown, a board-certified criminal defense attorney, fights for the rights of Texas defendants, making certain that law enforcement and the courts abide by all the rules and procedures of the criminal justice system. To learn more about how we can assist you in your legal matter, contact us online or at (432) 687-5157.

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