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Hughes v. United States

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

December 15, 2016

Alexander Hughes, Appellant,
United States, Appellee.

          Argued February 3, 2016

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CF1-6536-13), Hon. John Ramsey Johnson, Trial Judge.

          Jason Kalafat for appellant.

          Timothy R. Cahill, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Vincent H. Cohen, Jr., Acting United States Attorney at the time the brief was filed, and Elizabeth Trosman, Amy H. Zubrensky, and Rebekah Holman, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief, for appellee.

          BEFORE: Glickman and McLeese, Associate Judges; and Reid, Senior Judge.


         This case came to be heard on the transcript of record and the briefs filed, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, and as set forth in the opinion filed this date, it is now hereby

         ORDERED and ADJUDGED that the trial court's judgment relating to appellant's convictions on the Lopez charges is affirmed; however, the trial court's judgment with respect to appellant's convictions on Sanchez count 16, and his convictions on Mohamud counts 19, 20, and 21, is reversed, and those counts are remanded to the trial court for new trial.

          Inez Smith Reid, Senior Judge

         After trial on a twenty-six count indictment relating to sexual abuse and other charges, [1] a jury found Alexander Hughes guilty of fourteen of the charged counts.[2] On appeal, he contends that (1) the trial court abused its discretion by denying his pre-trial motion to sever the counts involving one complainant from the counts concerning the other two complainants, thereby resulting in substantial prejudice to him; and (2) the government's evidence was insufficient to convict him of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. For the reasons stated below, we affirm the trial court's judgment relating to Mr. Hughes's convictions on the Lopez charges. However, we reverse the trial court's judgment with respect to Mr. Hughes's convictions on misdemeanor sexual abuse counts 16, 19, 20, and destruction of property count 21, and remand those counts to the trial court for a new trial.


         To prove its charges of sexual abuse in the workplace, the government presented evidence showing that Mr. Hughes worked as a supervisor for FAME Food Management and was assigned to the cafeteria at the Nebraska Avenue Complex ("NAC") of the federal Department of Homeland Security, Federal Protective Service ("FPS"). All of the complainants worked at the NAC and were supervised by Mr. Hughes. The government's evidence was designed to show that over the course of one year, December 1, 2011, through December 3, 2012, Mr. Hughes committed twenty criminal acts against Suyapa Sorto de Lopez (kidnapping; first-, second-, and third- degree sexual abuse; misdemeanor sexual abuse; and assault); three against Rosa Sanchez (misdemeanor and attempted misdemeanor sexual abuse, and assault); and three against Nasro Mohamud (misdemeanor sexual abuse, and destruction of property).

         The first of the complainants to testify was Ms. Mohamud.[3] She described incidents involving Mr. Hughes and Ms. Lopez and Ms. Sanchez, as well as one involving herself. On one occasion Mr. Hughes licked one of his fingers and put it in Ms. Sanchez's ear; Mr. Hughes's fingernail "punctured the ear" and "a little bit of blood came out." In 2012, Mr. Hughes hit both Ms. Sanchez and Ms. Lopez on the buttocks with a wet, rolled-up towel. Mr. Hughes also hit Ms. Lopez on the buttocks with a cooking utensil, a spatula. Ms. Lopez would complain about Mr. Hughes hiding her shoes or her keys so that she could not leave at the end of her shift. One morning Mr. Hughes kicked Ms. Lopez in her back while she was cutting fruit, and later that same morning he hit her on the buttocks with a clipboard. On another occasion, Mr. Hughes grabbed Ms. Lopez by the neck as she was passing by him. Ms. Lopez tried to wiggle free, then turned around, slid Mr. Hughes's pants down and pushed him; Mr. Hughes pulled his pants up, and Ms. Lopez fell to her knees. Mr. Hughes said he was sorry.

         One of the incidents involving Ms. Mohamud and Mr. Hughes occurred in summer 2012 while Ms. Mohamud was cutting fruit and Mr. Hughes was cleaning the doughnut station with bleach. Her back was to Mr. Hughes. He sprayed her with the bleach from the top of her pants to her legs, including her buttocks. In doing so, Mr. Hughes damaged her pants to such an extent that she had to borrow another pair from a co-worker. Mr. Hughes apologized and offered her money to replace the pants. Ms. Mohamud could not recall the date on which Mr. Hughes hit her in the "[s]ame way as he hit [Ms. Sanchez], " that is on her buttocks with the wet, rolled-up towel. She "felt a little pain." Ms. Mohamud was afraid of being fired; nevertheless she told Mr. Hughes not to hit her again.

         The government's second witness, Ms. Sanchez, worked for FAME at the NAC until sometime in 2012, when she left because she felt "pressured" by Mr. Hughes, and because he did not treat employees well. Once Mr. Hughes touched his private part and commented on its size. At other times, he "would pull down his pants" and show "his bottom." While she was making sandwiches one day, Mr. Hughes tried to touch her breast but she folded her arms. She had previously seen Mr. Hughes try to touch Ms. Lopez's breast. Mr. Hughes hit Ms. Sanchez on the buttocks with a rolled-up, wet towel more than twice; he also hit other women with the towel. He hit Ms. Lopez on the buttocks with a towel and a spatula "several times" in 2012 as both women were cutting fruit. One day Mr. Hughes wet his finger and then used it to scratch the interior of Ms. Sanchez's ear, causing it to bleed a little bit. Ms. Sanchez and Ms. Lopez informed Mr. Hughes that they wished to speak with the owners of the business, but Mr. Hughes said he would never let them talk to the owners.

         When Mr. Hughes asked Ms. Lopez for headache medicine or gum, she would go to the room where the women changed their clothes and kept their purses. Mr. Hughes would insist that Ms. Lopez get the items for him, and he would follow her into the changing room. They would be in the room for approximately ten minutes. Once when Ms. Lopez returned from the area, she looked pale, she was fixing her hair, and her eyes were red. Ms. Lopez said that Mr. Hughes "forced her to do oral sex." Another time when Ms. Sanchez was going to the refrigerator, she saw Mr. Hughes in the hallway with his hands on Ms. Lopez's hands, forcing and pushing her against the wall. Ms. Lopez, who was angry and pale, was pushing to get away. When Mr. Hughes saw Ms. Sanchez, he released Ms. Lopez. Mr. Hughes hid Ms. Lopez's shoes once "so that she wouldn't leave" at the end of her shift.

         Ms. Lopez was the third complainant to testify. She worked at the NAC for four years, two years under Mr. Hughes's supervision.[4] Mr. Hughes began to touch her buttocks with his hand, a towel, a spatula, or his private part. He would grab a wet towel and hit her on her buttocks or her legs "many times." He would hit her so hard with the spatula or the towel that she would "run and get ice, " and the impacted area "would get red and swollen." Mr. Hughes would "laugh and leave." Sometimes Ms. Lopez would scream and sometimes she would laugh after these incidents. She would scream because the blow hurt and she would laugh because she did not know "what to do." In 2012, Ms. Lopez saw Mr. Hughes hit both Ms. Sanchez and Ms. Mohamud with a rolled-up towel. She never saw him hit the two male employees.

         Ms. Lopez described instances of sexual abuse by Mr. Hughes. Sometime in 2012, around 10:40 a.m., while other employees were on break but she was still working, she was walking to the refrigerator when Mr. Hughes grabbed her by her hair and pushed her toward the room the women used to change their clothes. After forcing her into the room he tried to pull her pants down, and she tried to pull them back up. He pulled her pants down again, hit her with his hand, asked if she wanted to lose her job, forced his private part into her anus, and ejaculated in her anus. Her hair "had come all undone, " and she was crying, but managed to "put [herself] together and [to go] back to work." About one or two weeks later, Mr. Hughes again accosted Ms. Lopez. She had gone to the back of the cafeteria to get a container. He again grabbed her hair and pushed her into the changing room and penetrated her.

          On other occasions, Mr. Hughes forced Ms. Lopez to perform oral sex - in the changing room, a closet where dry food was kept, the men's room, and her car. One morning she was on her way to the changing room to get her migraine medication, and as she was bending down in the room to get her purse from on top of a box, Mr. Hughes grabbed her by her hair, "h[e]ld [her] hard, " put his private part in her mouth, and ejaculated into her mouth. She spit into a glove she was wearing and threw it into the trash. Mr. Hughes tied up the trash bag and put it in a hole in the changing room. Oral sex took place on more than one occasion, after which Ms. Lopez would spit the result out into the trash and Mr. Hughes would put the trash in the changing room hole or put it outside in the trash. Earlier, Ms. Lopez testified before the grand jury that Mr. Hughes would threaten to fire her if she did not do what he wanted. Sometimes he would hide her purse and keys so she could not leave. As she put it, "many times he hid my personal things so that at the last minute he could do what he wanted to do." Oral sex happened in the dry goods area "more than once." As for the bathroom, early one morning around 5:45 or 6:00 a.m., Ms. Lopez was cutting up fruit when Mr. Hughes told her to "meet [him] in the bathroom." When she did not meet him there, he returned and told her he was waiting for her. When she declined to follow him, he said, "do you want me to kick you out? Do you want to lose your job?" She went to the bathroom and Mr. Hughes put his private part in her mouth. She told Ms. Sanchez about the oral sex but was too embarrassed to mention the anal penetration. She did not tell her husband because "he's a very angry and abusive man." He would have made her leave her job, but she needed to work because "[h]e did not have a stable job." She also "was afraid he would kill [her]."

         Special Agent Marco Monteiro, a criminal investigator with the FPS, was assigned to the team investigating Ms. Lopez's complaint against Mr. Hughes. When he went to the coat room (the changing room) at the NAC cafeteria and looked into the crawl space in the ceiling, he discovered and collected as evidence plastic bags containing different items. He placed these plastic bags in other bags, sealed them and took them to the laboratory at the Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD"). Officer Nathaniel Covington, a crime scene investigator for the MPD, went through the bags and pulled out latex gloves; he and his team examined the gloves using the alternate light source technique to determine which gloves contained body fluids. They packaged and sealed these gloves. Jessica Skillman, a forensic scientist at the Department of Forensic Sciences and an expert in serology, examined the gloves for the presence of semen. Three of the gloves tested positive for semen. She took samples of the three gloves for DNA testing. Ms. Skillman also received reference samples in the form of buccal swabs from Ms. Lopez and Mr. Hughes. She prepared a cutting of these samples for DNA testing. A forensic serologist and DNA analyst at the Department of Forensic Sciences, Christiana Shoopman, developed a DNA profile from cuttings made by Ms. Skillman. Further testing revealed that the semen from the three gloves tested by Ms. Skillman matched the DNA profile obtained from the swab that came from Mr. Hughes.

         On the morning of December 3, 2012, Ms. Lopez was cutting up vegetables in the back of the cafeteria when Mr. Hughes arrived at work. He was making body movements and his private part was "erect." He said he was "horny." He went into his office, came out later with a clipboard and hit Ms. Lopez's buttocks. She screamed and said she would "kick his butt" if he did it again. He laughed, returned to his office, but emerged within five minutes, hit her either with his hand or the clipboard, and laughed. Ms. Lopez was angry, entered Mr. Hughes's office, and "grabbed his shirt." In turn, he grabbed her, pulled her toward the closet, held her with one arm and touched her breasts with the other arm. She tried to free herself and hit him. Eventually she broke loose, but he kicked her on the buttocks, and she "fell down on one knee, " her right knee. She felt pain and began to cry. He laughed and twice said she was "going to die." He did not apologize or help her up. She sought assistance from Ms. Mohamud who brought her ice for the knee. At the end of the day, Ms. Lopez went to the infirmary at the NAC; she was treated later at the hospital, and by an orthopedic surgeon. She missed time from work due to more than one surgery on her knee and physical therapy.[5]

         At the end of the presentation of the government's evidence, defense counsel moved to dismiss certain counts relating to Ms. Lopez on the ground of insufficient evidence. The government acknowledged evidentiary problems with respect to certain counts identified by defense counsel, and hence, the government moved to dismiss certain counts involving kidnapping, first-degree sexual abuse and an attempted lewd, indecent or obscene act by Mr. Hughes.[6]

          Mr. Hughes presented several witnesses who testified that Ms. Lopez did not report oral sex or penetration by Mr. Hughes, and stated that she injured herself when she twisted her ankle. Others indicated that Mr. Hughes and Ms. Lopez "hors[ed] around" or teased each other by hitting each other's buttocks. Other witnesses talked about staff positions and administrative issues facing FAME, Mr. Hughes's schedule of work, or experiences with him at work that were inconsistent with Ms. Lopez's description of him.[7] The jury found Mr. Hughes not guilty of counts 8, 12, 24-26 (involving Ms. Lopez), and counts 17 and 18 (relating to Ms. Sanchez).[8] However, the jury convicted Mr. ...

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