FurlJ. Williams, Arthur Terence Bullock, & Marteese Norman v. United States, Nos. 12-CF-1604, 12-CF-1605, 12-CF-1504 (decided April 23, 2015)
Players: Chief Judge Washington, Associate Judge Fisher, & Senior Judge Reid. Opinion by Judge Reid. Opinion concurring in the judgment by Judge Fisher. Peter H. Meyers for Mr. Williams. Abram J. Pafford for Mr. Bullock. PDS for Ms. Norman. Judge: Gerald I. Fisher.
Facts: Mr. Chau encountered the defendants around 11:00 p.m. while waiting for a metro elevator on his way home from work. The defendants walked past Mr. Chau, looked back, and then approached him. When the defendants were three to four feet away from Mr. Chau, positioned around him in an arc, two of them said, “What, what, what,” while the third looked around. The defendants did not threaten him. Mr. Chau, who had limited ability to communicate in English, interpreted “[w]hat, what, what” to mean, “do [you] have any money.” Mr. Chau gave the defendants his wallet, and they left.
When the defendants were stopped soon after the incident, Detective Tabron conducted a show-up identification procedure with Mr. Chau. Detective Tabron testified at trial that he had “very little” trouble understanding Mr. Chau’s English, though he testified in the grand jury that he had understood Mr. Chau “[v]aguely.” According to Detective Tabron, Mr. Chau told him that Mr. Williams “was demanding money from him” and “was asking for money” and that Mr. Bullock “was asking for money.”
Issue: Was the evidence insufficient to show that the defendants took Mr. Chau’s wallet “by violence or by putting him in fear”?
Holding: Yes. The government must show that a defendant’s actions would “portend an immediate threat of danger to a person of reasonable sensibility.” The only words ascribed to the defendants by Mr. Chau — “What, what, what” — would not cause a reasonable person to perceive an immediate threat of bodily harm. And Detective Tabron’s “hearsay testimony” — that Mr. Chau had told him that two of the defendants demanded or asked for money — did not count for much, as the record left the court “with doubts as to whether Detective Tabron merely assumed what Mr. Chau told him.”
- Cite the court’s reasons for dismissing Detective Tabron’s “hearsay testimony” when arguing that particularly unreliable evidence does not suffice to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
- More generally, the court helpfully reminds that insufficient-evidence claims must be assessed in light of the “demanding standard” of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.” JM