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United States v. Straker

July 28, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge



Defendants Anderson Straker, Wayne Pierre, Christopher Sealey, and Kevin Nixon were extradited from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago ("Trinidad") to the United States in July 2007 to face charges of conspiracy to commit hostage taking resulting in death in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1203, and aiding and abetting hostage taking resulting in death. The charges arise from the abduction and death of a U.S. citizen, Balram Maharaj, in Trinidad in April 2005. Presently before the Court are Sealey's and Nixon's motions to exclude "other crimes" evidence under Fed. R. Evid. 404(b), multiple motions to conduct depositions of witnesses pursuant to Rule 15 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, and Straker's motion to compel discovery relating to an alleged joint venture between the United States and Trinidad concerning the investigation of the Maharaj case.*fn1 For the reasons stated below, the motions will be granted in part and denied in part.


I. Rule 404(b) Evidence

The government has submitted a notice of intention to introduce other hostage takings by defendants Pierre and Nixon pursuant to Fed. R. Evid. 404(b). This "other crimes" evidence consists of (1) the hostage taking of Dexter Jagdeo on December 16, 2004, by Pierre and seven other defendants in this case; (2) the hostage taking of Robin Ramadar on March 4, 2005, by Pierre and four other defendants; (3) the hostage taking of Kazim Rahim on May 4, 2005 by Nixon, Pierre, and five other defendants; and (4) the hostage taking of Gerald Gopaul on July 8, 2005 by Pierre and five other defendants.*fn2 See Government's Notice of Intention to Introduce Evidence Pursuant to Fed. R. Evid. 404(b) ("Gov't's Rule 404(b) Notice") (filed May 1, 2008). Nixon was allegedly involved in the Rahim hostage taking, and Pierre in all four. The government contends that the evidence is probative of defendants' "motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, [and] absence of mistake," as enumerated in the rule, and, in particular, that it is relevant to the background of the conspiracy charged and how the defendants came to be involved in the conspiracy. Id. at 10-13. Nixon seeks disclosure of additional details on the purpose of the other crimes evidence; both Nixon and Pierre have moved to exclude the evidence from trial altogether on the ground that is not relevant to any of the legitimate purposes specified in Rule 404(b) and, in any event, is unfairly prejudicial. The government has responded with a supplemental filing further addressing the other crimes evidence. See Government's Response in Compliance with the Court's Order dated July 17, 2008 ("Gov't's Supplemental Mem.") at 1-5.

"Under the law of this circuit, Rule 404(b) is a rule of inclusion rather than exclusion, and it is quite permissive, excluding evidence only if it is offered for the sole purpose of proving that a person's actions conformed to his or her character." United States v. Long, 328 F.3d 655, 660-61 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Hence, other crimes evidence may be admitted "so long as the evidence is offered for any other relevant purpose." United States v. Lawson, 410 F.3d 735, 741 (D.C. Cir. 2005). Where the other crimes are submitted to show motive or intent, the evidence must meet a threshold level of similarity. Long, 328 F.3d at 661. "What matters is that the evidence be relevant to show a pattern of operation that would suggest intent and that tends to undermine the defendant's innocent explanation." Id. at 661 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Such a "pattern of operation" may be shown by acts "closely related" to the offense charged, and is not limited to identical incidents. Id. If a court determines that the evidence is admissible under Rule 404(b), it must then decide whether the probative value is "'substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury,'" or by other considerations set out in Rule 403.*fn3

See Lawson, 410 F.3d at 741 (quoting Fed. R. Evid. 403).

The evidence concerning the four other hostage taking events is clearly probative of Nixon's and Pierre's motive and intent, and thus is relevant to an issue other than character. Like the charged offense, the other crimes each involved hostage taking for ransom; each employed similar means, i.e., abduction of a victim at gunpoint and a waiting vehicle; each occurred in Trinidad; and each involved many of the same conspirators, including several co-defendants in this case. Moreover, the other crimes were close in time to the hostage taking charged in this case, all within four months of the April 2005 abduction of Balram Maharaj. Pierre contends that the crimes must have a "startling resemblance" to one another to be admitted to prove that the identity of the person involved in the other crimes is the same as in the pending case. Pierre's Mot. in Limine at 5. But that argument overstates what is required under Rule 404(b) -- with respect to "motive" and "intent," this Circuit has held that the other crimes need only be "closely related to the offense" at issue to be probative; "exact congruence" is not required. Long, 328 F.3d at 661. Furthermore, "[i]in a conspiracy prosecution, the government is usually allowed considerable leeway in offering evidence of other offenses 'to inform the jury of the background of the conspiracy charged, to complete the story of the crimes charged, and to help explain to the jury how the illegal relationship between the participants in the crime developed.'" United States v. Mathis, 216 F.3d 18, 26 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (quoting United States v. Williams, 205 F.3d 23, 33-34 (2d Cir. 2000)). Based on the similarities between the other hostage takings and the present offense, the Court concludes that the evidence is offered for the legitimate purposes of proving, inter alia, the background of the conspiracy and how the relationships between the participants developed, as well as defendants' motive, intent, knowledge, preparation, and plan.*fn4

The Court turns next to whether the probative value of the other crimes evidence is "substantially outweighed" by the danger of unfair prejudice or other considerations under Rule 403. As the foregoing discussion shows, the probative value is strong because the other crimes would show how the relationships between the alleged co-conspirators developed and their motives for acting, within the relevant time frame. The danger of unfair prejudice is fairly low because, except perhaps for the Gopaul hostage taking, the other crimes evidence "adds no emotional or other pejorative emphasis not already introduced by the evidence" of the charged offense. See Lawson, 410 F.3d at 742; see also United States v. Cheng, No. 97-1016, 1997 WL 738588, at *1 (2d Cir. Nov. 21, 1997) (holding that the Rule 403 balancing favored admissibility where "the uncharged kidnapping was not more sensational or inflammatory than the charged crimes while tending to show how the relationships formed among the conspirators"). Furthermore, a limiting instruction will ordinarily suffice to protect the defendants' interests. Long, 328 F.3d at 662.

The Court does, however, have concerns about the needless presentation of cumulative evidence and undue delay, and whether it makes sense to spend a disproportionate part of the trial on Pierre's involvement in other hostage takings. (Only one of the other crimes involved Nixon.) The Court also considers that, of the four other hostage takings, the one presenting the most likely case for some degree of unfair prejudice is the Gopaul hostage taking because Gopaul was the only hostage who died; indeed, the circumstances suggest he was intentionally killed because of an insufficient ransom offer. Government's Rule 404(b) Notice at 7-8. That is significantly different from the hostage taking charged in this case, in which the victim -- a diabetic -- allegedly died as a result of deprivation of medical attention. Second Superseding Indictment ¶¶ 10(43)-(44), 10(66), 10(72). The Court thus determines that, under the required Rule 403 balancing, evidence of the Jagdeo, Ramadar, and Rahim hostage takings will be admitted, but evidence of the Gopaul hostage taking will be excluded to avoid the unnecessary presentation of cumulative evidence and to minimize the danger of unfair prejudice.

II. Rule 15 Depositions

Defendants Straker, Pierre, Nixon, and Sealey have each submitted motions to conduct depositions of witnesses pursuant to Rule 15 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Their proposed lists of witnesses, submitted ex parte, identify over 30 witnesses to be deposed, each of whom resides abroad. Information regarding the identity of the witnesses will remain under seal.*fn5 However, insofar as the motion to conduct depositions is granted, the Court provides the identity of the witnesses in this decision because the government is entitled to notice of depositions once a decision is made to schedule them. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 15(b)(1).

The purpose of Rule 15 is "to preserve testimony for trial, not to 'provide a method of pretrial discovery.'" United States v. Kelley, 36 F.3d 1118, 1124 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (quoting United States v. Troutman, 814 F.2d 1428, 1453 (10th Cir. 1987)). Under Rule 15, the proponent of the deposition "bears the burden of demonstrating that 'exceptional circumstances' necessitate the preservation of testimony through a deposition." Id. at 1124. To satisfy this burden, a defendant must (1) establish that the testimony sought is material, (2) prove that the witnesses are unavailable to testify at trial, and (3) make "some showing, beyond 'unsubstantiated speculation,' that the evidence exculpates" him. Id. at 1125 (citation omitted); accord United States v. Cannon, 475 F.3d 1013, 1022 (8th Cir. 2007); United States v. Eyong, Cr. No. 06-305, 2007 WL 1576309, at * 1 (D.D.C. 2007). Unavailability is defined by reference to Federal Rule of Evidence 804(a), which provides, in relevant part, that a witness ...

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