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United States v. Mathis

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

July 31, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
DANIEL LAMONT MATHIS, a/k/a Gunna, a/k/a Mooch, a/k/a D-Man, Defendant-Appellant. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
MERSADIES LACHELLE SHELTON, a/k/a Lady Gunns, a/k/a Maisha Love Uhuru, Defendant-Appellant. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
SHANTAI MONIQUE SHELTON, a/k/a Tai, a/k/a Lady Blaze, a/k/a Boss Lady, Defendant-Appellant. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
KWELI UHURU, a/k/a Travis Leon Bell, a/k/a K. Gunns, a/k/a Black Wolf, a/k/a Babi, Defendant - Appellant. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
ANTHONY DARNELL STOKES, a/k/a Face, a/k/a Black Face, a/k/a Kenyata Baraka, Defendant - Appellant. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
HALISI UHURU, a/k/a Arthur Lee Gert Wright, a/k/a Gritty, a/k/a Bones, a/k/a Big Homey, Defendant - Appellant.

          Argued: January 24, 2018

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia, at Charlottesville. Glen E. Conrad, District Judge. (3:14-cr-00016-GEC-JCH-1; 3:14-cr-00016-GEC-JCH-2; 3:14-cr-00016-GEC-JCH-3; 3:14-cr-00016-GEC-JCH-4; 3:14-cr-00016-GEC-JCH-6; 3:14-cr-00016-GEC-JCH-7)


          Frederick T. Heblich, Jr., OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Charlottesville, Virginia, for Appellant Daniel Lamont Mathis. Paul Graham Beers, GLENN, FELDMANN, DARBY & GOODLATTE, Roanoke, Virginia, for Appellant Anthony Darnell Stokes.

          Christopher R. Kavanaugh, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charlottesville, Virginia, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Larry W. Shelton, Federal Public Defender, Roanoke, Virginia, Geremy C. Kamens, Federal Public Defender, Alexandria, Virginia, Paul G. Gill, Assistant Federal Public Defender, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Richmond, Virginia; Aaron Lee Cook, Harrisonburg, Virginia; David Anthony Eustis, Charlottesville, Virginia; Rhonda E. Quagliana, Charlottesville, Virginia; Michael T. Hemenway, Charlottesville, Virginia; Sherwin John Jacobs, Harrisonburg, Virginia, for Appellants.

          Rick A. Mountcastle, Acting United States Attorney, Roanoke, Virginia, Ronald M. Huber, Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charlottesville, Virginia, for Appellee.

          Before KEENAN and DIAZ, Circuit Judges, and DUNCAN, Senior Circuit Judge.


         This case involves the prosecution of several members of a violent street gang known as the Double Nine Goon Syndikate (DNGS). After a multi-week trial, a jury convicted Halisi Uhuru (Halisi), Anthony Stokes (Stokes), Kweli Uhuru (Kweli), Mersadies Shelton (Mersadies), Shantai Shelton (Shantai), and Daniel Mathis (Mathis) (collectively, the defendants) of conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), 18 U.S.C. § 1962(d), based on their activities related to the gang.

         Mathis, Shantai, Mersadies, and Kweli (collectively, the capital defendants) also were convicted, in relation to the murder of an off-duty police officer, of violent crimes in aid of racketeering activity in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1959 (VICAR) by committing kidnapping and murder under Virginia law, as well as witness tampering by means of murder in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(a). The capital defendants were sentenced to serve terms of life imprisonment. Halisi and Stokes additionally were convicted of obstruction of justice in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(1).[1]

         On appeal, the defendants raise several challenges concerning their trial and sentences. Upon our review of these arguments, we vacate in part with respect to the capital defendants' convictions that are predicated on commission of kidnapping under Virginia law. Accordingly, we also remand the capital defendants' convictions for resentencing. We affirm the balance of the district court's judgments.


         The Bloods is a nationwide street gang.[2] Groups of Bloods are organized into "sets" or smaller, individual groups of Bloods. One of these sets, DNGS, was founded by Halisi, Stokes, and Kweli in 2013 during their incarceration for crimes unrelated to the present case.

         DNGS operates through a hierarchical structure. Halisi served as "high OG" or "Double OG," DNGS's leader. Stokes was second in command as "low [OG]." Kweli also held a leadership role with the rank of "OG," "Big Homey," or a "Low 020." Another DNGS leader was responsible for operations conducted by incarcerated DNGS members. These four individuals composed DNGS's "Roundtable," or leadership council. Reporting to the council were members organized by rank, including sergeant, lieutenant, and major. New DNGS members held the title of "soldier."

         Upon gaining membership into the gang, members were given notebooks to study that included the rules and the history of the Bloods gang and the DNGS set. Gang members communicated using certain codes and phrases in an effort to ensure that their communications remained incomprehensible to law enforcement authorities and others. Members outwardly reflected their association with the Bloods and DNGS by wearing red clothing items, including red bandanas, and by obtaining tattoos reflecting gang insignia.

         DNGS financed itself through the proceeds of various illegal activities undertaken by members, including armed robberies, home invasions, and burglaries. Members were expected to "put in work" to advance their rank in the gang, that is, to commit crimes in order to show their commitment and loyalty. If a member refused to "put in work," that member likely would have been "violated," or beaten.

         Both while imprisoned and after their release, Stokes, Kweli, and Halisi began recruiting new members to the newly formed DNGS set, including Shantai, Mersadies, and Mathis. As the gang's membership grew, DNGS members "put in work" committing a series of crimes from late 2013 into early 2014. This spree of illegal activities included a number of armed robberies of convenience stores, home invasions, burglaries, and other crimes committed in central Virginia.

         On the night of January 31, 2014, the capital defendants attacked Kevin Quick (Quick), an off-duty reserve captain with the Waynesboro, Virginia, Police Department, as he was departing his vehicle. The four defendants compelled Quick back into his vehicle at gunpoint, drove him to a nearby ATM, and forced him to withdraw money from his account. After learning that Quick was a police officer, and realizing that Quick had "already seen their face[s]," the capital defendants decided that "it was too late . . . to let [Quick] go." They drove Quick to a remote area off the main roadway, removed Quick from the car, and fired a single shot into Quick's head, killing him and leaving his body behind.[3]

         The next day, the capital defendants met with Halisi and Stokes in Manassas, Virginia. The defendants rented two hotel rooms to host a "B-House," or a meeting of DNGS members. Throughout that day, the defendants and other DNGS members discussed potential drug trafficking plans and engaged with other drug dealers in transactions involving the distribution of quantities of drugs, including crack cocaine.

         The capital defendants left the hotel the next morning and drove in Quick's vehicle to Front Royal, Virginia. Concerned that the vehicle could link them to the murder, the capital defendants bought bleach, rubber gloves, and a jug to hold gasoline for setting the vehicle on fire. Leaving Kweli behind, Mathis, Shantai, and Mersadies drove the vehicle to a friend's house where they cleaned the vehicle with bleach.

         Later that day, Mathis and Mersadies committed a robbery. During the robbery, Mathis fired one shot from his pistol. Investigators later recovered a bullet and a cartridge from the scene of this robbery and matched these items through forensic testing to the weapon used in Quick's murder and a previous robbery.

         Mathis and Mersadies quickly left the scene of the robbery in Quick's vehicle, which malfunctioned shortly thereafter. They pushed the disabled vehicle to a nearby driveway and doused the vehicle with additional bleach. After receiving a call from Mersadies asking for help, Halisi and Stokes decided that Stokes would drive to meet Mersadies and Mathis, as well as Shantai, who had reunited with Mersadies and Mathis. Once Stokes reached the group, Mathis and Shantai told him that Quick's vehicle needed to be destroyed, but Stokes stated that they would "find a way to get rid of it the next day."

         Stokes and Halisi later obtained a hotel room in which Mersadies, Mathis, and Shantai could "hide out."[4] As Quick's disappearance became publicized, Mersadies, Mathis, and Shantai discussed absconding to Montana to avoid being arrested. Mersadies informed Kweli of these discussions through frequent text messages.

         While Kweli was attempting to have Quick's vehicle destroyed, law enforcement officers located the abandoned vehicle. Evidence technicians recovered the following evidence from the vehicle: Kweli's fingerprint on Quick's driver's license, which was found in Quick's wallet inside the vehicle; fingerprints belonging to Mathis, Shantai, and Mersadies on the vehicle or on items within the vehicle; Mersadies' DNA on a piece of chewing gum left in the vehicle's ashtray; and Mathis' DNA on rubber gloves left in the vehicle.

         Once news media reported that Quick's vehicle had been recovered, the defendants planned their escape to Montana and destroyed other evidence related to their crimes. Halisi ordered Leslie Casterlow (Casterlow), who frequently acted as a drug courier for DNGS, to "get rid of" Quick's ATM card. Kweli ordered the other defendants to delete any incriminating text messages. Also, Shantai and one other DNGS member disassembled the gun used to kill Quick and placed the gun components in a pillowcase.

         A day after Quick's vehicle was recovered, Mathis, Shantai, and Mersadies were arrested at the hotel. After hearing news of the arrest, Halisi had his girlfriend destroy both his and Casterlow's phones. Casterlow, who still had possession of the murder weapon parts, hid those items behind a dumpster at their hotel.

         During this time, Stokes was traveling to Washington, D.C. and Maryland to purchase narcotics with an associate, Jamar Rice (Rice), who later became a government witness. After receiving information from an unidentified caller that law enforcement had raided the hotel[5] to which Stokes was returning after his trip with Rice, Stokes told Rice that his "homies" had carjacked and killed a police officer, and had left his body in the woods.

         Stokes returned to Virginia to pick up Halisi, Halisi's girlfriend, and Casterlow. Stokes told Casterlow to retrieve the murder weapon components from behind the dumpster and to drive the group to a nearby interstate highway. As Casterlow drove along the highway, Stokes threw the murder weapon parts over the wall bordering the road. Thereafter, Halisi, Stokes, and Casterlow were arrested at the hotel. Law enforcement officers later recovered the weapon parts with Casterlow's assistance.

         The defendants were charged in a 36-count indictment with conspiring to participate in a racketeering enterprise that included the commission of assaults, robberies, burglaries, kidnapping, carjacking, murder, drug trafficking, and obstruction of justice. After the jury was sworn during the first trial, the district court was informed that Kweli had removed from the courtroom a jury list containing identifying information about the jury panel members and their families. The district court thereafter granted the defendants' motion for a mistrial.

         A second trial was held in the Roanoke Division of the Western District of Virginia following a request by some of the defendants to change venue. The district court also granted the government's request to empanel an anonymous jury. At the close of the second trial, a jury found the defendants guilty on all counts. The district court later sentenced the capital defendants each to serve a term of life imprisonment. Halisi and Stokes received sentences of 144 and 160 months' imprisonment, respectively. Several other sentences were imposed on the various defendants. This appeal followed.



         The defendants first argue that the district court committed reversible error in deciding to empanel an anonymous jury. According to the defendants, there was no evidence supporting the district court's finding that the defendants had the capacity to harm or to intimidate the jurors.

         We review a district court's decision to empanel an anonymous jury for abuse of discretion. United States v. Dinkins, 691 F.3d 358, 371 (4th Cir. 2012). In a capital case, a district court may empanel an anonymous jury only after determining "by a preponderance of the evidence that providing the [juror] list . . . may jeopardize the life or safety of any person." Id. at 372 (citing 18 U.S.C. § 3432). We choose to apply this strict standard to both the capital defendants and the non-capital defendants, because the test is satisfied for both groups.

         A district court must base its decision to empanel an anonymous jury on evidence in the record, rather than solely on the allegations in the indictment. Id. at 373. Use of an anonymous jury is appropriate "only in rare circumstances when two conditions are met: (1) there is strong reason to conclude that the jury needs protection from interference or harm, or that the integrity of the jury's function will be compromised absent anonymity; and (2) reasonable safeguards have been adopted to minimize the risk that the rights of the accused will be infringed." Id. at 372 (citations omitted).

         To determine whether there are "strong reason[s]" for empaneling an anonymous jury, we consider five factors:

(1) the defendant's involvement in organized crime, (2) the defendant's participation in a group with the capacity to harm jurors, (3) the defendant's past attempts to interfere with the judicial process, (4) the potential that, if convicted, the defendant will suffer a lengthy incarceration and substantial monetary penalties, and (5) extensive publicity that could enhance the possibility that jurors' names would become public and expose them to intimidation or harassment.

Id. at 373 (citing United States v. Ross, 33 F.3d 1507, 1520 (11th Cir. 1994)). These factors are not exhaustive but are meant to provide guidance in the district court's fact-specific inquiry. Id.

         In the present case, during the first trial, the district court raised the question whether use of an anonymous jury would be appropriate. When the defendants stated their opposition, the court took no further action. However, as noted above, the court later received information that Kweli had removed the jury panel list containing the members' personal information and had kept the list overnight in the jail. After the court informed the jury members that the jury list had been retained by a defendant overnight, some of the defendants moved for a mistrial, which the court granted.

         In view of these events, the government filed a motion at the beginning of the second trial requesting an anonymous jury. The district court granted the government's motion.

         Applying the standards outlined in Dinkins and reviewing the district court's reasoning, we conclude for several reasons that the district court did not abuse its discretion in having the case heard by an anonymous jury. First, the indictment alleged that the defendants were members of a violent street gang and were involved in a number of violent criminal offenses, including witness tampering by murder. The record contained sworn statements by various cooperating witnesses and DNGS members corroborating these allegations. This evidence strongly suggested that the defendants had associates who were not incarcerated and could intimidate or harm the jurors. See Ross, 33 F.3d at 1520.

         Second, FBI special agent Scott Cullins expressed to the court concerns about juror safety given the gang's "history of not only retribution, but also preventative actions." Moreover, Deputy United States Marshal Mark Haley informed the court that at least two defendants, Kweli and Halisi, had continued their DNGS recruitment efforts from jail while awaiting trial. The circumstances leading to the mistrial thus more than justified the court's concern for juror safety. And third, if convicted, several of the defendants faced lengthy incarceration and substantial penalties that may have induced them to intimidate the jury in an attempt to influence the outcome of the trial. See id. at 1520-21.

         We also observe that the district court adopted reasonable safeguards to minimize the risk that the defendants' constitutional rights would be infringed by the use of an anonymous jury. Dinkins, 691 F.3d at 378. The court provided the venire members with a neutral, non-prejudicial explanation of its decision that minimized the danger of prejudice to the defendants. See United States v. Hager, 721 F.3d 167, 188 (4th Cir. 2013). And the court's decision did not interfere with the defendants' ability to conduct a thorough voir dire examination. Counsel were given full access to all juror information, and the defendants were permitted to review redacted juror questionnaires. Accordingly, upon our consideration of all the facts and ...

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