United States District Court, N.D. California
ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS CARROLL AND LEE'S MOTIONS TO SEVER (Docket Nos. 59, 77)
EDWARD M. CHEN, District Judge.
On September 10, 2008 Reetpaul Rana was shot to death during a drug transaction in Humboldt County, California. Docket No. 57 p. 1 (Def. Lee's Mot. To Suppress). A five year investigation into the murder of Rana led to the arrest and indictment of codefendants Ryan Carroll and Robert Lee. Docket No. 80, p. 1. Carroll is charged with: (1) robbery affecting interstate commerce; (2) use/possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence; (3) use of firearm in furtherance of crime of violence causing murder; (4) conspiracy; (5) destruction of evidence; and (6) use of fire in commission of federal felony. Docket No. 1, Indictment, at pp. 3-4. Carroll pled not guilty to all six counts. Docket No. 7, Arraignment.
Lee is charged with overlapping counts of: (4) conspiracy; (5) destruction of evidence; and (6) use of fire in commission of federal felony. Indictment at p. 4. Lee is independently charged with counts: (7) accessory after the fact; (8) manufacture and possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance; and (9) use/possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Id. Lee pled not guilty to all counts. Docket No. 14, Arraignment.
On February 26, 2015, Carroll filed a motion to sever his trial from Lee's, arguing that a joint trial would be fundamentally unfair. Docket No. 59. Lee joined in the request. Docket No. 77.
A. Legal Standard
Criminal defendants may be tried together pursuant to Rule 8(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. That rule provides that "[t]wo or more defendants may be charged in the same indictment or information if they are alleged to have participated in the same act or transaction or in the same series of acts or transactions constituting an offense or offenses." Fed. R. Crim. P. 8. However, even if criminal defendants are properly joined under Rule 8(b), such joinder may improperly prejudice one or all of the defendants. Zafiro v. United States, 506 U.S. 534 (1993). In recognition of this potential problem, a remedy lies in Rule 14(a), which provides that:
If the joinder of offenses or defendants in an indictment, an information, or a consolidation for trial appears to prejudice a defendant or the government, 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.
The United States Supreme Court has held that "a district court should grant severance under Rule 14 only if there is a serious risk that a joint trial would prejudice a specific trial right of one of the defendants, or prevent the jury from making a reliable judgment about guilt or innocence." Zafiro, 506 U.S. at 539. When bringing a motion to sever, the moving party bears the burden of proving that a joint trial is so manifestly prejudicial that it violates the movant's right to a fair trial. United States v. Mitchell, 502 F.3d 931, 963 (9th Cir. 2007). In evaluating the prejudicial effect of a joint trial, a court should review the specific and practical factors of each case that create a risk of severe prejudice. For example, a defendant might suffer prejudice if the prosecution is able to admit evidence in a joint-trial that would be inadmissible against that defendant in a separate trial. Id. "Conversely, a defendant might suffer prejudice if essential exculpatory evidence that would be available to a defendant tried alone were unavailable in a joint trial." Id. Additionally, courts have widely recognized that severe prejudice may result when joined defendants are asserting "mutually antagonistic" defenses. Id. (collecting cases).
In the end, the degree of prejudice inflicted by joinder is a question that a district court must evaluate holistically. Zafiro, 506 U.S. at 539. That determination, as well as the ultimate question of severance under Rule 14, are within the discretion of the court. Id.
Here, Carroll argues that the Court should sever his trial from that of his codefendant Lee because (1) he and Lee will present mutually antagonistic defenses; and (2) a joint trial will deprive him of evidence he could otherwise present to the jury.
B. Mutually Antagonistic Defenses
The Ninth Circuit has held that severance of a joint trial may be necessary where the codefendants present mutually antagonistic theories of defense. United States v. Tootick, 952 F.2d 1078, 1081 (9th Cir. 1991). Mutually antagonistic defenses are typically defined as theories of defense that logically require the acquittal of one defendant, if the other defendant is convicted. Id. In Tootick, the Ninth Circuit addressed a stabbing that took place in a secluded area. 952 F.2d at 1080. The victim - Aaron Hart - testified that he accompanied two other men - Moses Tootick and Charles Frank - to a secluded area in a pickup truck. Id. at 1081. Hart further testified that once they reached this area Frank stabbed him. Id. Frank testified that ...