US v. Jorge Torrez
PUBLISHED AUTHORED OPINION filed. Originating case number: 1:11-cr-00115-LO-1. . [14-1]
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UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
Plaintiff - Appellee,
JORGE AVILA TORREZ,
Defendant - Appellant.
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, at
Alexandria. Liam O’Grady, District Judge. (1:11-cr-00115-LO-1)
Argued: May 9, 2017
Decided: August 28, 2017
Before DIAZ, FLOYD, and THACKER, Circuit Judges.
Affirmed by published opinion. Judge Thacker wrote the opinion, in which Judge Diaz
concurred. Judge Diaz wrote a separate concurring opinion. Judge Floyd wrote an
opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.
ARGUED: Julie L.B. Stelzig, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER,
Greenbelt, Maryland, for Appellant. James L. Trump, OFFICE OF THE UNITED
STATES ATTORNEY, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: James Wyda,
Federal Public Defender, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER,
Baltimore, Maryland; Robert E. Lee, Jr., VIRGINIA CAPITAL REPRESENTATION
RESOURCE CENTER, Charlottesville, Virginia, for Appellant. Dana J. Boente, United
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States Attorney, Richard D. Cooke, Jonathan L. Fahey, Michael E. Rich, Assistant United
States Attorneys, Robert J. Heberle, Special Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE
OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellee.
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THACKER, Circuit Judge:
Jorge Avila Torrez (“Appellant”) was convicted of first-degree murder and
sentenced to death. In this appeal, he raises a host of challenges to his conviction and
death sentence. We find the challenges to his conviction to be without merit. As for
sentencing, we focus on three specific challenges: (1) whether Appellant’s death sentence
was unconstitutional because it was based solely on post-offense conviction aggravators;
(2) whether the district court erred in failing to apply the categorical approach to state
convictions that made him death penalty eligible; and (3) whether the district court erred
by allowing Appellant to forego a mitigation defense without conducting a second
competency evaluation and hearing.
For the reasons explained below, we find no
reversible error in the sentencing proceedings.
Accordingly, we affirm Appellant’s
conviction and sentence.
We view the facts in the light most favorable to the Government, the prevailing
party at trial. See United States v. Said, 798 F.3d 182, 186 n.2 (4th Cir. 2015).
On July 13, 2009, Amanda Snell was found dead in her room at Joint Base MyerHenderson Hall, a residence hall on a military base located near Arlington, Virginia.
When the 20-year-old Navy Intelligence Specialist did not show up for duty on Sunday
night, July 12, two officers investigated and discovered her body in her room early the
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next morning. She was lying in an unnatural position at an angle on the floor of a wall
locker, with her knees pressed into her torso and her feet pushed against a drawer. Her
head was covered by a pillowcase and pushed down into her chest.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (“NCIS”) arrived at 7:45 a.m. on
Monday, July 13, and began its investigation. Agents conducted a walk-through and
inventory, took the temperature of the room and Snell’s body, took photographs, and took
impressions of shoeprints in the vinyl floor in front of the wall locker. The agents
noticed that the bed was made, with only a fitted sheet and a comforter, and the room was
Based on the information gathered on the morning of July 13, the medical
examiner believed Snell had been dead for 24 to 36 hours or more. After conducting an
autopsy, the examiner listed the cause of death as “undetermined.” J.A. 4099. 1 He noted
there was “no recent or remote evidence of significant injury.” Id. at 4101. He did note
moderate dysplasia of the atrioventricular nodal artery in the heart, which “has been
associated with cardiac arrhythmias and sudden death,” but he did not attribute Snell’s
death to this condition. Id. at 4104. The Government later retained a second medical
Based on the circumstances at the scene, this second medical examiner
concluded that the cause of death was asphyxia, which can occur without any visible
Citations to the “J.A.” refer to the Joint Appendix filed by the parties in this
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Appellant lived down the hall from Snell. He, like others who lived near Snell,
complied with NCIS’s request to complete a personal data sheet, in which he indicated
that he did not know Snell and had never been in her room. He also consented to a search
of his room and gave a DNA sample.
The Arlington Crimes
Snell’s murder remained unsolved until 2010, when Appellant was arrested for
other crimes in Arlington County, Virginia. On February 10, 2010, Appellant attempted
to abduct and assault M.N., a 26-year-old female who was walking to her boyfriend’s
house in Arlington County. Appellant approached her from behind, grabbed her jacket,
showed her a gun, and told her to keep quiet and keep walking. M.N. told Appellant,
“[J]ust take my bag,” but he kept pushing her toward a tan Dodge Durango. J.A. 3631.
He also pulled out a knife and “urge[d] [her] along to get into the car.” Id. at 3634. M.N.
dropped her bag and ran away. Once she reached a nearby friend’s house, her friends
called the police, but neither Appellant nor M.N.’s bag was located.
A little more than two weeks later, on February 27, 2010, two female graduate
students, J.T. and K.M., were walking to K.M.’s house in Arlington County. As they
stopped in front of the house, Appellant emerged from behind a parked car. He moved
his sweatshirt to the side to show the women he had a gun and demanded their wallets.
After the women told him they had no money, he forced them into K.M.’s house and
ordered them to kneel down next to the couch. He bound their hands with a vacuum
cord. At one point when Appellant left the room, the women were able to loosen their
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hands. Appellant returned to the room with a knife and retied J.T.’s hands with an iron
cord, and ordered the women to go to the bedroom. They complied, and when Appellant
left the room again, J.T. managed to grab her cell phone and call 911. Appellant returned
to the room, threw the cell phone against the wall, and then grabbed J.T. and led her
outside to his SUV. He “showed [her] [his] gun” again and told her to get in his vehicle.
J.A. 3649. After he drove for some time, he stopped, got in the back seat with J.T., and
told her he was going to rape her. He forced her to perform oral sex on him, and then he
put on a condom (saying, “I’m not an idiot”) and raped her. Id. at 3652. He forced her to
perform oral sex again, and then covered her face with packing tape. He drove to a
secluded area and forced J.T. to perform oral sex one more time. He then took J.T.’s
scarf and tightened it around her neck until she was unconscious. When she regained
consciousness, she was face down in the snow with her hands above her head.
Eventually, a passerby found her and called an ambulance.
Based on the description of Appellant’s vehicle and the similarities and locations
of the two Arlington crimes, officers arrested Appellant on February 27, 2010, at Joint
Base Myer-Henderson Hall. 2 Police searched Appellant’s Durango and found J.T.’s
university ID and earring, packing tape, and a stun gun. In his barracks room, they found
a loaded Glock 22 pistol (which was purchased on February 5) and multiple rounds of
ammunition. They also seized his laptop and accessories, which contained dozens of
Two Arlington County police officers had observed someone matching
Appellant’s description and driving a Dodge Durango stalking women from his car for
long periods of time from February 4 through 6, days before the first Arlington crime.
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sexually explicit videos and images depicting violent rapes and sexual assaults, and
which were stored between April 2009 and February 2010. Many videos were “sleeping
rape” videos, meaning “someone is sleeping and is attacked or raped.” J.A. 3731.
Appellant was convicted in Arlington County Circuit Court for abduction with
intent to defile, robbery, use of a firearm in a felony, abduction, rape, breaking and
entering while armed, and forcible sodomy. On December 10, 2010, the circuit court
entered judgment, imposing five life sentences, followed by consecutive sentences
totaling 168 years.
The Zion Crimes
Five years prior to the Arlington crimes, on May 8, 2005, two young girls (Laura
Hobbs and Krystal Tobias) were murdered in a park in Zion, Illinois, Appellant’s
hometown. One witness saw the girls talking to someone who looked like Appellant,
who at the time was 16 years old. When the girls did not return home that evening, a
search party was deployed, and Hobbs’s father and grandfather eventually found the girls
the next morning in a wooded area of the park. Authorities arrived and confirmed the
girls were dead; their bodies had sustained multiple stab wounds. Hobbs was stabbed 20
times, including wounds to her abdomen, side, back, and horizontal stab wounds
perforating her eyelids. One of the wounds punctured her liver. Officials also discovered
a significant amount of male DNA in Hobbs’s right hand. Tobias was stabbed 11 times,
in her stomach, intestines, liver, neck, windpipe, and cervical spine, causing significant
hemorrhaging in her neck.
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Within days, officials arrested and charged Jerry Hobbs, Laura Hobbs’s father,
who had a felony record. But after evidence collected during the autopsy was sent to the
crime laboratory, Jerry Hobbs was excluded as a suspect based on DNA analysis. The
lab also tested semen found on Hobbs’s clothing, vagina, rectum, and mouth, but officials
were unable to determine a source.
The DNA records were put into a nationwide
database, and periodically, the state DNA forensic examiner would check for a match. In
June 2010, after Appellant was arrested for the Arlington crimes and his DNA entered
into the system, the examiner found he was a potential match. Further testing showed
that Appellant was indeed a match for the clothing and vagina DNA, as only one in every
985 quadrillion individuals would be expected to have the same profile. He also could
not be excluded as the source of the other DNA found in Hobbs’s right hand, anus, and
While he was awaiting trial for the Arlington crimes, Appellant was held in the
Arlington County Detention Facility. Because police officers suspected Appellant was
planning to threaten and/or intimidate witnesses in the Arlington case, they arranged for a
federal inmate, Osama El-Atari, to act as a confidential informant and record
conversations between the two of them. El-Atari recorded conversations over the course
Appellant was eventually indicted for the Zion murders in Illinois before the
sentencing hearing in this case.
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of approximately one week in August 2010. During those conversations, Appellant
admitted to suffocating Snell in her room, calling it “[t]he perfect crime.” J.A. 4307,
4325. However, his story changed over time, and sometimes he indicated he was teasing
El-Atari about the details of the crime. See, e.g., id. at 4331 (saying he strangled her); id.
at 4319 (saying he choked her with a plastic bag); id. at 4335–36 (saying he choked her
with a laptop cord); id. at 4315 (agreeing he pinned her down and “choke[d] [her] out”).
He also bragged about crimes he did not commit, telling El-Atari he killed 23 people in
He told El-Atari that Snell was a random victim and he murdered her “for the
adrenaline,” J.A. 4347; because “[he] got bored,” id. at 4377; and simply “because [he]
could,” id. at 4322. He accurately described how he placed her body in the wall locker,
except he told El-Atari he put a bag over her head, rather than a pillowcase. See id. at
4360 (“[S]he wouldn’t fit laying flat. I had to bend her fucking knees and make her like
she’s sitting down, ‘cause it’s a small closet.”). He said after he killed Snell, he made the
bed and thoroughly cleaned the room. Appellant said he removed one of the bed sheets,
but he left the fitted sheet. 4
Appellant also confided to El-Atari about the murders of Laura Hobbs and
Krystal Tobias. He told him he killed two girls when he was 16 years old, and when the
father of one of the girls confessed, “I was like, Damn. . . . I’m clean. I’m good. I ain’t
got shit to worry about.” J.A. 5081. Appellant recounted the murders in excruciating
detail, and his story corresponded with the autopsies of the girls. But again, he changed
his story about his motive. See, e.g., id. at 5092 (stating it was “[r]andom”); id. at 5115
(stating he did it for “no reason”); id. at 5140 (suggesting the girls saw him deliver
drugs). He also claimed he did not have sexual contact with either one of them.
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Upon hearing this information, NCIS expedited testing of the fitted sheet, and
technicians discovered a semen stain consistent with Appellant’s DNA. State police had
also seized Appellant’s Nike shoes after his arrest for the Arlington crimes. Based on
Appellant’s statements to El-Atari, officials asked that those shoes be compared to the
footwear impressions found in front of Snell’s wall locker. A government latent print
examiner testified that the shoes that made the impressions were “consistent in size,
design, and wear” with Appellant’s shoes. J.A. 3508.
Additionally, NCIS again interviewed Appellant. This time, he acknowledged
knowing that Snell lived near him, but still said he had never been in her room.
On May 26, 2011, a federal grand jury returned an indictment charging Appellant
with one count of first-degree murder of Amanda Snell.
See 18 U.S.C. § 1111(a)
(defining federal first-degree murder as the “willful, deliberate, malicious, [or]
premeditated” killing of another). The indictment alleged statutory aggravating factors
supporting a death sentence.
Specifically, it charged that Appellant was previously
convicted of a state offense “involving the use or attempted use or threatened use of a
firearm,” and that Appellant was previously convicted of two state offenses “involving
the infliction of, or attempted infliction of, serious bodily injury or death upon another
person.” J.A. 56.
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On February 29, 2012, the Government filed a notice of its intent to seek the death
penalty. See J.A. 75–83 (the “Notice”). The Notice listed two statutory aggravating
factors: previous conviction of a felony involving the use or attempted or threatened use
of a firearm; and two separate, previous convictions involving the infliction of, or
attempted infliction of, serious bodily injury or death. The Notice listed the Arlington
convictions in support of both aggravating factors. See id. at 76–78. Before trial,
Appellant filed two motions to strike the statutory aggravating factors, but the district
court denied both requests.
Trial commenced on March 31, 2014. The Government called more than 30
witnesses over the course of four days and introduced hundreds of pages of exhibits.
Appellant’s counsel cross-examined the Government’s witnesses, but only presented one
witness, a former Marine who lived at Myer-Henderson Hall and testified that he had
been in Snell’s room at one time, but lied about it because of a rule that members of the
opposite sex should not be in a room together with the door closed. The jury returned a
guilty verdict on the sole first-degree murder count on April 8, 2014.
The district court bifurcated the penalty phase into (1) an eligibility phase, during
which the jury determines whether a defendant is eligible for the death penalty based on
statutory factors; and (2) a selection phase, during which the jury considers aggravating
and mitigating factors and decides whether the death penalty is warranted. The eligibility
phase began on April 21, 2014. As explained in more depth below, during that phase, the
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same jury that convicted Appellant found him eligible for the death penalty based on two
statutory aggravating factors. The jury then proceeded to the selection phase, where it
considered both statutory and non-statutory factors and unanimously recommended a
sentence of death. Appellant chose not to present mitigating evidence. On May 30,
2014, the district court adopted the jury’s recommendation and sentenced Appellant to
death. He noted this appeal the same day.
Challenges to Murder Conviction
Appellant raises five challenges to his first-degree murder conviction: (1) whether
the district court improperly limited Appellant’s confrontation rights when it conditioned
the cross-examination of Osama El-Atari on the admission of evidence of the Zion
crimes; (2) whether the district court violated Rule 404(b) when it admitted evidence of
the Arlington crimes and Appellant’s electronic media showing violent pornography; (3)
whether the district court committed reversible error in allowing expert testimony on
shoeprint analysis; (4) whether Appellant was denied his right to an impartial jury when
the district court refused to allow him to ask potential jurors whether they would consider
a sentence of life upon hearing evidence that Appellant had murdered two young children
and sexually abused one of them; and (5) whether the Government’s use of cell site
location information (“CSLI”) against Appellant violated his Fourth Amendment rights. 5
Appellant acknowledges that his CSLI argument is foreclosed by this court’s en
banc decision in United States v. Graham, 824 F.3d 421, 423 (4th Cir. 2016) (en banc).
See Appellant’s Reply Br. 85. Thus, we will not address it here.
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Cross-Examination of El-Atari
Part of Appellant’s defense strategy was to demonstrate that he was lying or
exaggerating during the course of his jail conservations with Osama El-Atari. Thus,
defense counsel sought to cross-examine El-Atari about information Appellant gave that
was false or “patently incredible,” including his representations to El-Atari that he
committed other crimes he could not have committed.
Appellant’s Br. 129–30.
However, the district court ruled that if Appellant proceeded with this line of questioning,
the Government would be able to introduce conversations about the Zion crimes. See
J.A. 3843 (“If you are going to get into other crimes . . . and the fact th[at] he didn’t
commit other crimes that he said he did, then I think it opens up Zion open wide.”); id. at
3845 (“My ruling is that as long as you don’t . . . start asking about other murders that he
has committed and other crimes that aren’t within the transcripts presently, I am not
going to allow the Zion 404(b) evidence.”). Based on this ruling, defense counsel chose
not to cross-examine El-Atari about the false or exaggerated statements relating to other
crimes. Appellant contends the district court’s decision to condition cross-examination of
El-Atari on evidence of the Zion crimes violated his Sixth Amendment rights. See
Appellant’s Br. 129–30.
We hold that the district court did not abuse its discretion. To be sure, the main
reason defense counsel would have wanted to introduce Appellant’s exaggerations and
falsities was to show that everything he told El-Atari could have been false and mere
boasting, including the information he gave about Snell’s death. The Government was
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entitled to rebut that argument with information Appellant gave to El-Atari about a crime
he committed that was arguably true. Indeed, defense counsel acknowledged as much.
See J.A. 3843 (defense counsel “agree[ing]” that asking El-Atari about the other crimes
Appellant did not commit “opens up Zion . . . wide”).
However, even if the district court erred in this regard, the error was harmless. See
United States v. Madden, 38 F.3d 747, 753 (4th Cir. 1994) (“[T]he test for harmlessness
is whether we can say with fair assurance, after pondering all that happened without
stripping the erroneous action from the whole, that the judgment was not substantially
swayed by the error.” (internal quotation marks omitted)). To the extent Appellant
contends his cross-examination would have impeached El-Atari’s assertions that any lies
Appellant told him were “minor” and would have allowed the jury to assess El-Atari’s
“asserted competence as a lie detector,” Appellant’s Br. 141–42, defense counsel was
able to cross-examine El-Atari about the following:
- El-Atari’s prior convictions for crimes involving deception;
- El-Atari’s attempts to deceive Appellant about why and how
long he was in prison;
- El-Atari’s alleged failure to follow instructions from law
- El-Atari’s desire to get out of prison.
And on direct examination, El-Atari testified about the inconsistencies in Appellant’s
statements about the Snell murder, and he also testified that Appellant said he was
deliberately making false statements so their discussions would be unable to be used
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Under these circumstances, it is difficult to fathom how cross examining El-Atari
about additional falsities Appellant relayed to him would have made much difference,
given that the jury already knew to approach Appellant’s statements to El-Atari with
caution, knowing that he deliberately (and admittedly) lied at certain points in his
jailhouse conversations. For these reasons, Appellant’s argument on this point fails.
Rule 404(b) Evidence
Appellant next argues that admitting evidence of the Arlington crimes and
Appellant’s electronic media, which contained violent pornography, violated Rule 404(b)
of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Rule 404(b) “prohibits evidence of other crimes,
wrongs, or acts solely to prove a defendant’s bad character, but such evidence may be
admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation,
plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident.” United States v. Byers,
649 F.3d 197, 206 (4th Cir. 2011) (alterations and internal quotation marks omitted)).
This Court has articulated a four-prong test to determine the admissibility of prior-act
evidence under Rule 404(b):
(1) The evidence must be relevant to an issue, such as an
element of an offense, and must not be offered to establish the
general character of the defendant. . . . (2) The act must be
necessary in the sense that it is probative of an essential claim
or an element of the offense. (3) The evidence must be
reliable. And (4) the evidence’s probative value must not be
substantially outweighed by confusion or unfair prejudice in
the sense that it tends to subordinate reason to emotion in the
United States v. Queen, 132 F.3d 991, 997 (4th Cir. 1997). We review for abuse of
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discretion. See Byers, 649 F.3d at 206.
The Government produced evidence of pornographic videos showing violence
against women who were sleeping, unconscious, or restrained.
This evidence was
admitted to show intent and motive, as well as modus operandi since Snell was murdered
in the early morning in her bed, and officials discovered Appellant’s semen on her bed
sheets. See, e.g., United States v. Blauvelt, 638 F.3d 281, 292 (4th Cir. 2011) (upholding
admission under Rule 404(b) of adult pornographic videotapes in order to prove identity,
motive, and intent in child pornography case); United States v. Brand, 467 F.3d 179, 197
(2d Cir. 2006) (upholding admission under Rule 404(b) of evidence that a defendant
possessed child pornography to show the defendant’s “sexual interest in children” and
thus demonstrate his intent in traveling across state lines to meet a minor (internal
quotation marks omitted)); United States v. Smith, 103 F.3d 600, 603 (7th Cir. 1996)
(explaining that a common form of evidence offered to prove who omitted a crime is
“modus operandi” evidence, which is “evidence that shows a defendant’s distinctive
method of operation”). It was not an abuse of discretion for the district court to admit
As for the Arlington crimes, the circumstances surrounding the offenses against
M.N., J.T., and K.M. mere months after Snell’s murder were relevant and necessary to
demonstrate Appellant’s modus operandi, motive, and intent. These offenses resembled
Snell’s murder in the following ways: (1) they all involved assaults on women Appellant
did not know (well or at all) in their early to mid 20s; (2) they all took place in the early
morning hours; (3) the motive appeared to be sexual, as evidenced by the semen on
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Snell’s bed, the rape of J.T., and Appellant’s forcing of M.N. to get into his car; (4) the
Snell murder (based on statements Appellant made to El-Atari) and the February 27
offense both involved tying up women with cords from electronics found in the victim’s
living space; (5) the Snell murder (based on statements Appellant made to El-Atari) and
February 27 offense both involved strangling; (6) there was no semen found in Snell, but
it was found on her bedsheet, and on February 27, Appellant used a condom when raping
J.T., telling her “I’m not an idiot.” J.A. 3652.
Although the crimes were certainly not identical, they “need not be”; rather they
“must be similar enough to be probative of intent.” United States v. Van Metre, 150 F.3d
339, 350 (4th Cir. 1998) (internal quotation marks omitted) (upholding admission under
Rule 404(b) of evidence of a prior abduction and sexual assault by the defendant of
someone other than the victim, in order to show that the defendant’s “purpose in
abducting [the victim] was, from the very start, for his own sexual gratification”). And
the time between the crimes is within the permissible realm.
See United States v.
Hadaway, 681 F.2d 214, 217 (4th Cir. 1982) (upholding evidence of conduct committed
18 months after the crime charged and explaining, “subsequent conduct may be highly
probative of prior intent. That one has thought in a particular illegal way over a period of
time is evidence that one’s thought patterns had already been so developed and were so
operating on another previous occasion”).
Nor was the evidence more prejudicial than probative. This court has held “bad
acts evidence, admissible under Rule 404, is not barred by Rule 403 where such evidence
did not involve conduct any more sensational or disturbing than the crimes with which
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the defendant was charged.” Byers, 649 F.3d at 210 (internal quotation marks omitted).
As disturbing and sensational as the Arlington crimes were, a murder of a young woman
in her own bedroom is even more so.
Moreover, the district court gave limiting
instructions and excluded evidence of J.T.’s condition after Appellant left her on the side
of the road and her resulting health problems, any evidence about the Arlington crimes
that was not presented in the state court trial, and any evidence about Appellant’s attempt
to threaten or intimidate witnesses to the Arlington crimes. See United States v. Kibler,
667 F.2d 452, 455 (4th Cir. 1982) (recognizing the judge’s limiting instructions “[can]
reduce the likelihood of any prejudice”). For these reasons, Appellant’s Rule 404(b)
Appellant next challenges the district court’s admission of testimony from a latent
print examiner. That expert testified that the shoes that made the impressions on the
vinyl floor in front of Snell’s wall locker were “consistent in size, design, and wear” with
the Nike shoes taken from Appellant in February 2010. J.A. 3508. Even assuming the
district court should have excluded the shoeprint analysis testimony, we can say with fair
assurance that the judgment was not substantially swayed by the error. It is simply not
probable that this evidence affected the jury’s verdict, given that the jury also knew
Appellant’s DNA was on Snell’s bed sheet, and Appellant described to El-Atari in great
detail how he killed Snell and shoved her in the wall locker. Thus, we reject this claim
under harmless error review. See United States v. Hedgepeth, 418 F.3d 411, 421 (4th Cir.
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Finally, Appellant claims he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to an
impartial jury when, in voir dire, the jurors were not asked this question, proposed by
2. The government in this case may introduce evidence that
Jorge Torrez committed a sexual assault and murder of an
eight-year-old girl as well as the murder of a nine-year-old
b. If you find Mr. Torrez guilty, then in the penalty phase of
trial, would this evidence affect your ability to fairly weigh
the aggravating factors against the mitigating factors and
return a sentence of life without the possibility of release, or
would you find it difficult to vote for life without the
possibility of release?
J.A. 1799–1800 (bold type omitted). 6 Instead, the district court said to the jurors: “I will
tell you now that there may also be evidence introduced about other crimes that the
Government believes that [Appellant] has committed, and those would include assault,
sexual assault, and abduction, and it may include child victims.” Id. at 1928. The court
did not, however, mention murder.
Although this is, for all intents and purposes, a challenge to Appellant’s sentence,
see Appellant’s Br. 179 n.73, we address it here because the voir dire occurred at the
outset of trial, and Appellant contends the jurors were not “qualified to serve in a capital
case,” see id. at 178.
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The district court did not abuse its discretion in rejecting Appellant’s proposed
voir dire question.
See Rosales-Lopez v. United States, 451 U.S. 182, 189 (1981)
(“[F]ederal judges [are] accorded ample discretion in determining how best to conduct
the voir dire.”). In United States v. Caro, we explained:
district courts must conduct “adequate voir dire” to enable
them “to remove prospective jurors who will not be able
impartially to follow the court’s instructions and evaluate the
evidence.” Because “[a]ny juror who would impose death
regardless of the facts and circumstances of conviction cannot
follow the dictates of law,” the Supreme Court has held that
“[a] defendant on trial for his life must be permitted on voir
dire to ascertain whether his prospective jurors function under
597 F.3d 608, 614 (4th Cir. 2010) (quoting Rosales-Lopez, 451 U.S. at 188; Morgan v.
Illinois, 504 U.S. 719, 735–36 (1992)).
There, we upheld the district court’s choice to ask, “Are your feelings about the
death penalty such that you would always vote for a sentence of death as a punishment
for someone convicted of a death penalty eligible offense, regardless of the facts and
circumstances?,” Caro, 597 F.3d at 615, rather than “Do you feel that anyone convicted
of intentional and pre-meditated murder deserves to get the death penalty? If not, what
kind of case does or does not deserve the death penalty?,” id. at 614 (emphasis supplied).
We explained that the question asked by the district court “adequately enabled the district
court to weed out prospective jurors irrevocably committed to imposing the death
penalty.” Id. at 615 (citing Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510, 522 n.21 (1968)
(excluding a juror who is “irrevocably committed . . . to vote against the penalty of death
regardless of the facts and circumstances” does not violate the Sixth Amendment)); see
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also United States v. Tipton, 90 F.3d 861, 878 (4th Cir. 1996) (finding satisfactory the
questions of whether jurors “ha[d] strong feelings in favor of the death penalty” and if so,
whether they “would always vote to impose the death penalty in every case where a
defendant is found guilty of a capital offense”). Indeed, we have rejected “the suggestion
that the trial court was required to ask potential jurors whether they would automatically
impose the death penalty in rape-murder cases because . . . crime-specific voir dire
questions” are not required. Oken v. Corcoran, 220 F.3d 259, 266 n.4 (4th Cir. 2000)
(emphasis supplied) (citing Morgan, 504 U.S. at 728). The district court’s question in
this case was much more specific than the questions we found sufficient in Oken and
Caro. Therefore, Appellant’s argument on this point fails as well.
For the foregoing reasons, we hold Appellant’s challenges to his conviction to be
without merit and therefore affirm his conviction.
Challenges to Death Sentence
In reviewing a capital sentence, we must (1) “address all substantive and
procedural issues raised on the appeal of a sentence of death”; (2) “consider whether the
sentence of death was imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice, or any other
arbitrary factor”; and (3) “consider . . . whether the evidence supports the special finding
of the existence of an aggravating factor required to be considered under [18 U.S.C.
§] 3592.” 18 U.S.C. § 3595(c)(1). For any error in the sentencing proceeding, the
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government must “establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the error was harmless.”
Id. § 3595(c)(2).
Use of Post-Offense Conduct as Statutory Aggravator
unconstitutionally imposed because it was based on conduct and convictions that
occurred after the Snell murder. We review this issue de novo. See United States v.
Runyon, 707 F.3d 475, 502 (4th Cir. 2013).
Under the Federal Death Penalty Act (“FDPA”), once the jury finds the defendant
guilty of an offense for which a death sentence is provided, the trial proceeds to the
penalty phase. In a homicide case, the jury must make certain determinations before it
can impose the death penalty. Some courts, including the district court in this case,
choose to bifurcate the penalty phase into an “eligibility” phase and a “selection” phase -which, along with the guilt phase, result in an overall trifurcated proceeding. 7
In the eligibility phase, the jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the
By its plain language, the FDPA does not require a trifurcated proceeding; rather,
it requires, after the guilt phase, “a separate sentencing hearing” and thus a bifurcated
proceeding at minimum. 18 U.S.C. § 3593(b). Courts addressing the issue, however,
have held that this language does not preclude a bifurcated sentencing hearing resulting
in an overall trifurcated proceeding. See United States v. Fell, 531 F.3d 197, 240 (2d Cir.
2008) (“the central point of that phrase[, ‘a separate sentencing hearing,’] is that the
sentencing decision should be separated from the guilt phase -- not that the sentencing
phase must necessarily take place during one uninterrupted hearing.”); accord United
States v. Bolden, 545 F.3d 609, 618 (8th Cir. 2008).
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(A) intentionally killed the victim;
(B) intentionally inflicted serious bodily injury that resulted
in the death of the victim;
(C) intentionally participated in an act, contemplating that the
life of a person would be taken or intending that lethal force
would be used in connection with a person, other than one of
the participants in the offense, and the victim died as a direct
result of the act; or
(D) intentionally and specifically engaged in an act of
violence, knowing that the act created a grave risk of death to
a person, other than one of the participants in the offense,
such that participation in the act constituted a reckless
disregard for human life and the victim died as a direct result
of the act[.]
18 U.S.C. § 3591(a)(2)(A)–(D). Also in the eligibility phase, the jury must find beyond a
reasonable doubt the existence of at least one of sixteen statutory aggravating factors.
See 18 U.S.C. § 3593(e); id. § 3592(c)(1)–(16).
Once the above requirements are satisfied, the defendant is eligible for the death
penalty, and the proceedings continue in the selection phase, where jurors consider the
presence of aggravating and mitigating factors and decide whether to recommend the
death penalty. The jury must determine whether aggravating factors, both statutory and
non-statutory, “sufficiently outweigh” the mitigating factors presented by the defendant
to justify a death sentence, “or, in the absence of a mitigating factor, whether the
aggravating factor or factors alone are sufficient to justify” that sentence. 18 U.S.C.
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In the case at hand, Appellant’s murder conviction provides for a sentence of
death. See 18 U.S.C. § 1111 (providing, “Whoever is guilty of murder in the first degree
shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for life”). During the eligibility phase, the
jurors found that each of the intent requirements was met with respect to Appellant’s
murder of Snell, and it also found that two statutory aggravating factors were satisfied,
based on Appellant’s Arlington crime convictions:
• The defendant “has previously been convicted of a Federal or
State offense punishable by a term of imprisonment of more
than 1 year, involving the use or attempted or threatened use
of a firearm . . . against another person”; and
• The defendant “has previously been convicted of 2 or more
. . . State offenses, punishable by a term of imprisonment of
more than 1 year, committed on different occasions,
involving the infliction of, or attempted infliction of, serious
bodily injury or death upon another person.”
18 U.S.C. § 3592(c)(2), (4); see J.A. 5233–34. Finally, during the selection phase, the
jury decided that the following non-statutory aggravating factors were proven:
• Appellant killed Krystal Tobias and Laura Hobbs on May 8,
2005, stabbing Krystal 11 times and Laura approximately 20
times, including in both eyes.
• Appellant sexually assaulted Laura Hobbs on May 8, 2005.
• Appellant stalked females with the intent of sexually
assaulting them during the late night hours of February 4 and
the early morning hours of February 5, 2010, in Arlington
• On February 5, 2010, Appellant purchased a Glock
semiautomatic pistol to use in abducting, robbing, and
sexually assaulting female victims.
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• On February 10, 2010, Appellant abducted M.N. at gunpoint,
brandished a knife, robbed her, and tried to force her into his
• On February 27, 2010, Appellant abducted K.M. and J.T. at
gunpoint and demanded money from them. He then forced
them inside K.M.’s house, where he tied them up.
• On February 27, 2010, Appellant grabbed J.T. and forced her
at gunpoint out of the house into his Dodge Durango. After
driving for a while, he forced her to perform oral sex, bound
her hands, raped her, and again forced her to perform oral
sex. He then bound her mouth and head with tape and pushed
her to the floor.
• On February 27, 2010, Appellant drove with J.T. on the floor
of his vehicle and stopped in a wooded area. He again forced
J.T. to perform oral sex on him.
• On February 27, 2010, Appellant attempted to kill J.T. by
strangulation (wrapping a scarf around her neck and
tightening it). J.T. lost consciousness. Appellant dumped her
in the woods, but J.T. regained consciousness and was able to
flag down a car. She was seriously injured.
• On February 27, 2010, Appellant was arrested. He was found
in possession of a stun gun and tape in his vehicle, along with
J.T.’s personal property.
• While incarcerated and awaiting trial for the Arlington
crimes, Appellant plotted to have the victim witnesses against
• While incarcerated and awaiting trial for the Arlington
crimes, Appellant possessed a “shank,” commonly used by
prisoners to kill others.
• Appellant has displayed no remorse for Snell’s murder;
rather, he bragged about it.
• Appellant “poses a future danger to others in that he is likely
to commit, and direct others to commit, additional acts of
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violence in any setting, including acts of violence and threats
of violence against witnesses who have testified against him.”
• Appellant caused injury, harm, and loss to the victim and
victim’s family and friends, “as evidenced by the victim’s
personal characteristics and by the impact of her death upon
the victim’s family and friends.”
J.A. 5235–38. Despite the fact that Appellant chose to present no mitigating evidence,
seven of 12 jurors found one mitigating factor: that Appellant “was under the age of 18 at
the time Laura Hobbs and Krystal Tobias were killed.” Id. at 5239.
Appellant contends he was not actually eligible for the death penalty, as the only
statutory aggravating factors found by the jury “cannot qualify as ‘previous convictions’
because they occurred after commission of the [capital] offense.” Appellant’s Br. 15
(capitalization omitted). The district court, however, rejected Appellant’s motion to
strike these factors, concluding that any predicate convictions occurring prior to
sentencing would satisfy § 3592(c)(2) and (c)(4).
This court addressed and rejected this very argument in United States v. Higgs.
See 353 F.3d 281 (4th Cir. 2003). Dustin Higgs was convicted of three counts of firstdegree murder committed in the perpetration of kidnapping, three counts of first-degree
premeditated murder, three counts of kidnapping resulting in death, and three counts of
using a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence. See id. at 289. All charges
stemmed from events of one night, when Higgs and a companion forced three women
into a car, drove them to a federal park area, and Higgs’s companion shot each of them to
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death. See id. at 289–90. The jury found three statutory aggravators supporting a death
sentence on the kidnapping and murder counts (multiple killings in a single criminal
episode, a prior firearm conviction, and a prior drug conviction) and an additional
aggravator (death during commission of another crime) for the murder counts. See id. at
300. Higgs was ultimately sentenced to nine death sentences under the FDPA, one for
each murder and kidnapping count, plus a 45-year sentence for the firearm offenses. See
id. at 295.
One of the myriad arguments Higgs raised was that his drug conviction, rendered
after the murder but before sentencing, was not actually a “previous” conviction that
could qualify as a statutory aggravator. See 18 U.S.C. § 3592(c)(12) (listing as an
aggravating factor, “The defendant had previously been convicted of violating title II or
III of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 for which a
sentence of 5 or more years may be imposed” (emphasis supplied)). The district court
denied Higgs’s motion to strike this aggravator. See Higgs, 353 F.3d at 317.
We affirmed, holding, “[T]he § 3592(c)(12) statutory aggravating factor
encompasses all predicate convictions occurring prior to sentencing, even those occurring
after the conduct giving rise to the capital charges.” Id. at 318 (emphasis in original).
Although it easily could have done so, Congress did not
specify that either the prior offense or conviction had to occur
before the death penalty offense. On the contrary, the entire
section speaks in terms of those things that must be
considered when the death sentencing hearing is conducted
and the petit jury begins its weighing process. And, we note
that where Congress has intended a different practice in other
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circumstances, it has made that intent clear.
Higgs, 353 F.3d at 318 (quoting 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C) (providing for an enhanced
penalty “[i]f any person commits such a violation after a prior conviction for a felony
drug offense has become final”); 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) (stating “[i]t shall be unlawful for
any person . . . who has been convicted . . . to [commit specified violations]”) (emphases
The district court in this case relied heavily on Higgs in concluding that (c)(2) and
(c)(4), which use very similar language, 8 must also encompass any convictions occurring
before sentencing. We agree that we are bound by Higgs on this point. We see no
legitimate reason to distinguish (c)(12) from (c)(2) and (c)(4), all of which contain the
phrase “previously been convicted.” And Appellant makes no attempt to distinguish the
aggravators based on the words “has” and “had,” as that argument is also foreclosed by
Higgs. See 353 F.3d at 319 (concluding the “grammatical difference” between has and
had “is far too tenuous a basis upon which to conclude that Congress intended that the
prior serious drug offense aggravating factor for homicide was to be treated differently
than every other prior conviction aggravating factor”). Therefore, we are constrained to
conclude that convictions occurring after the murder but before capital sentencing qualify
as “previous” convictions under (c)(2) and (c)(4). See Mentavlos v. Anderson, 249 F.3d
301, 312 n.4 (4th Cir. 2001) (“[A] panel of this court cannot overrule, explicitly or
Subsections (c)(2) and (c)(4) require that the defendant “has previously been
convicted,” whereas (c)(12) requires he “had previously been convicted.”
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implicitly, the precedent set by a prior panel of this court. Only the Supreme Court or
this court sitting en banc can do that.”).
Appellant’s attempts to distinguish Higgs are unavailing. To begin, he claims that
the Higgs court “was not asked to decide the constitutional arguments implicated in this
case, so [it] cannot be said to have decided them.” Appellant’s Br. 34–35. While the
nuanced ex post facto, Eighth Amendment, and Fifth Amendment arguments raised here
(explained in depth, infra) were not raised in Higgs, we nonetheless cannot ignore its
conclusion that as a matter of statutory interpretation, the (c)(12) aggravating factor
encompasses all predicate convictions occurring prior to sentencing.
Appellant also contends the district court failed to recognize two “critical
distinctions” between Higgs and this case. Appellant’s Br. 35. We address each in turn.
First, Appellant contends that at the time of the trial in Higgs, the Supreme Court
had not yet decided Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584, 609 (2002), and thus, “statutory
aggravators were not viewed as elements of the offense,” so post-offense conduct was
“not functioning as an element of capital murder.” Appellant’s Br. 35. Ultimately,
however, the distinction between elements and sentencing factors does not directly affect
whether Higgs’ interpretation of § 3592(c)(12) applies to this case.
As a matter of background, in Ring, the Supreme Court held that statutory
aggravators that increase the punishment for a crime “operate as ‘the functional
equivalent of an element of a greater offense,’ [and] the Sixth Amendment requires that
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they be found by a jury.” 536 U.S. at 609 (quoting Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S.
466, 494 n.19 (2000)); see also id. at 605 (“If the legislature defines some core crime and
then provides for increasing the punishment of that crime upon a finding of some
aggravating fact, the core crime and the aggravating fact together constitute an
aggravated crime, just as much as grand larceny is an aggravated form of petit larceny.
The aggravating fact is an element of the aggravated crime.” (alterations omitted)
(quoting Apprendi, 530 U.S. at 501 (Thomas, J., concurring))).
Before Ring, however, the Supreme Court had concluded that the fact of a prior
conviction which increases the maximum penalty for a crime is not an element of a
separate crime; rather, it is a “penalty provision” that merely “authorizes an enhanced
penalty.” Almendarez–Torres v. United States, 523 U.S. 224, 226 (1998); see also Jones
v. United States, 526 U.S. 227, 248 (1999) (“[T]he precise holding [in Almendarez–
Torres] that recidivism increasing the maximum penalty need not be so charged . . .
rested in substantial part on the tradition of regarding recidivism as a sentencing factor,
not as an element to be set out in the indictment.”). The Apprendi Court explained,
Both the certainty that procedural safeguards attached to any
“fact” of prior conviction, and the reality that AlmendarezTorres did not challenge the accuracy of that “fact” in his
case, mitigated the due process and Sixth Amendment
concerns otherwise implicated in allowing a judge to
determine a “fact” increasing punishment beyond the
maximum of the statutory range.
530 U.S. at 488 (footnote omitted). And Ring itself made clear that because Ring’s
sentence did not involve an aggravating circumstance related to a prior conviction, he did
“not challenge Almendarez–Torres.” Ring, 536 U.S. at 597 n.4. Thus, Ring explicitly
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left unresolved the question of whether prior convictions could serve as functional
elements of capital murder.
Against that backdrop, the defendant in Higgs asked this court to find his
indictment fatally flawed in part because it did not list the prior conviction aggravating
factors applicable to his death sentence. See Higgs, 353 F.3d at 300. We recognized,
however, that “with the exception of the fact of prior convictions, those intent and
aggravating factors which the government intends to rely upon to render a defendant
death-eligible under the FDPA are the functional equivalent of elements of the capital
offenses and must be charged in the indictment, submitted to the petit jury, and proved
beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id. at 298 (emphasis supplied). Thus, we held that Higgs’s
indictment was not defective even though the prior conviction aggravators were not
alleged therein: they were simply not the “functional equivalent of elements of the capital
offenses.” Id. at 298; see also id. at 301–02.
We also discussed the impact of Ring, which had been decided during the appeal
of Higgs’s convictions and sentences. Although we recognized “Ring [may have] placed
on shaky ground the Almendarez-Torres proposition that prior convictions that increase
the maximum penalty need not be alleged in the indictment,” we nonetheless concluded
that “[u]ntil the Supreme Court overrules Almendarez–Torres, we are bound to follow its
holding.” Id. at 303; see also United States v. Bullette, 854 F.3d 261, 264 n.2 (4th Cir.
2017) (“Although the Supreme Court has expressed doubt about the continuing validity
of Almendarez-Torres, it remains good law, and we may not disregard it unless and until
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the Supreme Court holds to the contrary.” (internal quotation marks omitted)). 9
On Appellant’s view, Higgs concluded that the prior conviction aggravators in that
case functioned as “sentencing factors” only because other valid aggravating factors
existed to make Higgs death eligible (i.e., murder during the commission of another
offense). Appellant’s Br. 37. In Appellant’s exceedingly rare case, though, another valid
aggravator did not exist, which Appellant says makes all the difference. Whatever the
merits of Appellant’s claim in the abstract, it need not detain us here, for the Government
in this case did list the two prior conviction statutory aggravators in the indictment, and
the jury found the existence of those aggravators beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, the
only issue for us is whether to apply Higgs’ interpretation of § 3592(c)(12) to (c)(2) and
(c)(4). That interpretive decision, holding that prior conviction statutory aggravators -like § 3592(c)(12) -- include conduct occurring after the capital offense but before
sentencing, depended on an analysis of legislative intent and language in other statutory
To be sure, Almendarez-Torres’s holding has become “shak[ier]” in the years
since Higgs. See Alleyne v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2151, 2160 & n.1 (2013) (holding
that the Sixth Amendment provides defendants with the right to a jury determination of
facts increasing the statutory minimum sentence, but declining to revisit AlmendarezTorres, because the “parties d[id] not contest that decision’s vitality”); United States v.
McDowell, 745 F.3d 115, 124 (4th Cir. 2014) (“[T]he Supreme Court’s recent
characterizations of the Sixth Amendment are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile
with Almendarez–Torres’s lonely exception to Sixth Amendment protections.” (citing
Alleyne, 133 S. Ct. at 2160)); see also Shepard v. United States, 544 U.S. 13, 28 (2005)
(Thomas, J., concurring) (“The parties do not request it here, but in an appropriate case,
this Court should consider Almendarez-Torres’ continuing viability. Innumerable
criminal defendants have been unconstitutionally sentenced under the flawed rule of
Almendarez-Torres, despite the fundamental imperative that the Court maintain absolute
fidelity to the protections of the individual afforded by the notice, trial by jury, and
beyond-a-reasonable-doubt requirements.” (internal quotation marks omitted)).
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schemes. While Higgs may have justified the effects of its interpretive decision by
referencing the Almendarez-Torres exception, 353 F.3d at 319 n.9, its reasoning did not
depend solely on treating prior conviction statutory aggravators as sentencing factors
rather than elements. Thus, Higgs’ interpretation of § 3592(c)(12) applies to the other
prior conviction aggravators in § 3592(c), including (c)(2) and (c)(4), regardless of
whether we treat prior conviction aggravators as sentencing factors or elements.
Second, Appellant notes that in Higgs, the sentencing proceeding was bifurcated,
rather than trifurcated. However, there is no indication that Higgs’s conclusion hinged on
the fact that all of the aggravators were considered together in one proceeding.
Appellant’s argument on this point assumes that the prior convictions were treated only
as selection factors, not as statutory aggravators bearing on eligibility. This assumption
is wrong. While it is true that Higgs stated -- in the context of Higgs’s Fifth Amendment
indictment challenge -- that as long as one valid statutory aggravator is alleged in the
indictment, any additional factors “can be fairly viewed as sentencing considerations,” it
nonetheless analyzed the post-offense conduct statutory argument as if Higgs’s prior drug
conviction were a statutory aggravator. Higgs, 353 F.3d at 299, 317–19. Only after this
analysis did this court provide an alternative reason for affirmance: there were other
statutory aggravators present. Therefore, this argument does not render Higgs inapposite.
Appellant’s remaining constitutional challenges to his death sentence are
foreclosed by the language and operation of the FDPA and our precedent.
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Ex Post Facto Claim
Appellant contends that “[a]llowing an element of the offense to occur postoffense and retroactively render a prior murder . . . capital murder would violate ex post
Appellant’s Br. 29.
Article I, section 9 of the United States
Constitution provides, “No . . . ex post facto Law shall be passed.” U.S. Const. art. I, § 9,
cl. 3. The ex post facto clause “looks to the standard of punishment prescribed by a
statute [and] forbids the application of any new punitive measure to a crime already
consummated, to the detriment or material disadvantage of the wrongdoer.” Lindsey v.
Washington, 301 U.S. 397, 401 (1937); see also id. (“It could hardly be thought that, if a
punishment for murder of life imprisonment or death were changed to death alone, the
latter penalty could be applied to homicide committed before the change.”).
Nothing about § 3592(c)(2) or § 3592(c)(4) changed between the time of Snell’s
murder and the time of Appellant’s sentencing. Thus, this issue turns on whether the
district court’s interpretation of § 3592(c)(2) and (c)(4) can function as a “Law” under
the ex post facto clause. Appellant cites Bouie v. City of Columbia for the proposition
that it can; however, Bouie reasoned that when an “unforeseeable” construction of a
criminal statute is applied retroactively to subject someone to punishment for past
conduct, the ex post facto clause, as well as due process concerns, are implicated. 378
U.S. 347, 353–55 (1964). It was certainly not “unforeseeable” that Appellant’s murder
could be elevated to capital murder based on a subsequent qualifying conviction -- that is
precisely what happened in Higgs. Cf. Glenn v. Johnson, 761 F.2d 192, 195 (4th Cir.
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1985) (“Since the interpretation of the statute was not only foreseeable but indeed was
inescapable, the plaintiffs simply have no case.”).
Further, Appellant’s attempt to rely on Higgs on this point is unfounded. We
decided in Higgs whether the “multiple killings in a single criminal episode” aggravator
was properly applied, since that aggravator was not added to the FDPA until after the
murders at issue in Higgs. We found an ex post facto violation occurred because the
addition of that subsection of the statute “alter[ed] the elements of the offense or the
quantum of punishment” and clearly “increase[d] the punishment for criminal acts” after
the conduct was committed. 353 F.3d at 301. Here, in contrast, the aggravators which
ultimately made Appellant death-eligible were part of the FDPA before the Snell murder.
Thus, Appellant’s ex post facto argument fails.
Eighth Amendment Claim
Appellant also claims the use of post-offense conduct to make a defendant eligible
for the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment, which provides that “cruel and
unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted.” U.S. Const. amend. VIII. The Supreme
Court has explained that to pass constitutional muster, the aggravating circumstance that
serves to make a defendant death eligible must meet two requirements: first, it “must
genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty”; and second, it “must
reasonably justify the imposition of a more severe sentence on the defendant compared to
others found guilty of murder.” United States v. Caro, 597 F.3d 608, 623 (4th Cir. 2010)
(quoting Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 877 (1983)).
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First, using post-offense convictions would narrow the class of defendants
convicted of murder. Although Appellant argues that the previous conviction aggravators
can expand the class of murderers subject to capital punishment if the offender later
commits another crime, that is not the focus of the Eighth Amendment analysis. Instead,
the focus is on whether the class of offenders is narrowed from all murderers, not the
class of offenses. Cf. Higgs, 353 F.3d at 318 (suggesting prior conviction aggravators
like (c)(12) “do not concern matters directly related to the death penalty offense [but]
[r]ather [are] concerned with the characteristics of the offender as of the time that he is
And although this interpretation expands the class of offenders with
previous convictions, it nonetheless narrows the class of all murderers to only murderers
with previous convictions.
Second, as to whether § 3592(c)(2) and (c)(4) reasonably justify the imposition of
a more severe sentence on the defendant compared to others found guilty of murder, see
Caro, 597 F.3d at 623, we have explained, “one can hardly dispute the congressional
wisdom that recidivism justifies harsher sentencing. Defendants with significant criminal
histories demonstrate unwillingness or inability to follow the law. This justifies imposing
harsher sentences to provide increased retribution and deterrence,” id. at 623–24.
A more challenging aspect of this inquiry is whether the statute imposes the death
penalty on these recidivists in a non-arbitrary and unambiguous way. Along these lines, a
court “must first determine whether the statutory language defining the [aggravating]
circumstance is itself too vague to provide any guidance to the sentencer.” Tuilaepa v.
California, 512 U.S. 967, 972 (1994) (quoting Arave v. Creech, 507 U.S. 463, 471
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(1993)); see also Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 189 (1976) (opinion of Stewart,
Powell, and Stevens, JJ.) (The “discretion . . . afforded a sentencing body . . . must be
suitably directed and limited so as to minimize the risk of wholly arbitrary and capricious
We acknowledge that permitting post-offense convictions to qualify as statutory
aggravators may allow for prosecutorial manipulation of the timing of charges in order to
make an earlier offense death eligible. But Appellant presents no such evidence in this
case. Moreover, prosecutors have “wide discretion over whether, how, and when to bring
a case,” United States v. Segal, 495 F.3d 826, 833 (7th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation
marks omitted), and Appellant’s argument is not strong enough to overcome our holding
in Higgs that (c)(12) -- and by extension (c)(2) and (c)(4) -- encompasses all offenses for
which the defendant has been convicted at the time of sentencing, regardless of whether
the offense or conviction occurred after the capital offense.
And as to whether (c)(2) and (c)(4) are unconstitutionally vague, Higgs again
provides the answer. Examining the language and structure of the FDPA, we explained
that “Congress did not specify that either the prior offense or conviction had to occur
before the death penalty offense.” Higgs, 353 F.3d at 318. Rather, “where Congress has
intended a different practice in other circumstances, it has made that intent clear.” Id.
(citing 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C); 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1)). Holding at this juncture that
(c)(2) and (c)(4) are unconstitutionally vague would fly in the face of this analysis and
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Higgs’s ultimate conclusion. 10
Fifth Amendment Claim
Finally, Appellant claims his sentence violates the Fifth Amendment because it
fails to provide fair notice and violates double jeopardy guarantees.
Amendment provides in relevant part, “No person shall be . . . subject for the same
offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; . . . nor [shall he] be deprived of life,
liberty, or property, without due process of law.” U.S. Const. amend. V. The Due
Process Clause prohibits the Government from “taking away someone’s life, liberty, or
property under a criminal law so vague that it fails to give ordinary people fair notice of
the conduct it punishes, or so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement.” Beckles
v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 886, 892 (2017).
These arguments also fail. Appellant cannot claim he had no notice of potential
consequences of his actions. Section 1111 of Title 18, which provides for a penalty of
death for first-degree murder, did not change between Snell’s murder and Appellant’s
sentencing, nor did (c)(2) and (c)(4). And the district court interpreted these provisions in
Although we recognize that we are constrained by Higgs on this issue, we
nonetheless observe the merit of Appellant’s statutory argument. Unbound by Higgs, one
could read the phrase “has previously been convicted” in (c)(2) and (c)(4) as ambiguous
and invoke the rule of lenity. And notwithstanding the lingering viability of AlmendarezTorres, the rule of lenity need not apply only to elements of a conviction, but can also
apply to sentencing factors. See United States v. Hall, 972 F.2d 67, 69 (4th Cir. 1992)
(“Under the rule of lenity any criminal statute, including a sentencing provision, must be
construed in favor of the accused and against the government if it is ambiguous.”
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a manner consistent with the Higgs decision, which was issued more than five years
before Snell’s murder.
As for double jeopardy, there are no such concerns here. The imposition of a
death sentence was not above the authorized statutory maximum punishment, and any
implication that the Arlington crimes “bec[a]me a tail which wags the dog of the
substantive offense” bears on the issue of prosecutorial misconduct, which was not raised
below or in this appeal. Appellant’s Br. 33 (quoting Witte v. United States, 515 U.S. 389,
Whether the Arlington Crimes Satisfy § 3592(c)(2) and (c)(4)
We next address Appellant’s argument that the Arlington crimes do not qualify as
previous convictions under 18 U.S.C. § 3592(c)(2) and (c)(4). This argument has two
parts: first, whether the district court should have applied the categorical approach in the
eligibility phase; and second, whether the Arlington crimes satisfy the elements of (c)(2)
and (c)(4). We review these issues de novo. See United States v. Ritchie, 858 F.3d 201,
209 (4th Cir. 2017).
Because only one statutory aggravator is necessary to render
Appellant death eligible, we will focus on (c)(2), which again provides: “the defendant
has previously been convicted of a Federal or State offense punishable by a term of
imprisonment of more than 1 year, involving the use or attempted or threatened use of a
firearm (as defined in [18 U.S.C. § 921]) against another person.”
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Appellant argues that Congress contemplated application of the categorical
approach to § 3592(c)(2) and (c)(4) when it enacted the FDPA. Appellant’s argument,
however, contravenes the language and purpose of the FDPA, and, once again, is in
tension with Higgs.
The categorical approach was first announced in Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S.
575, 599–602 (1990). There, the Court held that 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii) -- which
provided a sentencing enhancement for a person who “has three previous convictions” for
a “violent felony” offense, in that case, “burglary” -- “generally requires the trial court to
look only to the fact of conviction and the statutory definition of the prior offense.”
Taylor, 495 U.S. at 600–02 (footnote omitted).
Determining whether to apply the categorical approach requires an exercise in
statutory interpretation. See Ritchie, 858 F.3d at 209. We must decide whether the
provision at issue refers “to an element of a . . . statute,” in which case we use the
categorical approach, or “to the factual circumstances surrounding commission of the
crime on a specific occasion,” in which we use the circumstance-specific approach.
Nijhawan v. Holder, 557 U.S. 29, 33 (2009). However, the “interpretive difficulty” is
that “in ordinary speech words such as ‘crime,’ felony,’ ‘offense,’ and the like sometimes
refer to a generic crime, . . . and sometimes refer to the specific acts in which an offender
engaged on a specific occasion.” Id. at 33–34.
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Higgs addressed the question of whether courts must apply the categorical
approach in determining whether a prior conviction involved the use of a firearm under
§ 3592(c)(2), meaning the court would “only look to the fact of conviction and the
statutory definition of the crime of conviction to determine whether a firearm was
involved, not to the particular facts of the case.” Higgs, 353 F.3d at 316 (citing Taylor,
495 U.S. at 588–89). Because use of a firearm is not a specific element of the Maryland
offenses for which Higgs was convicted, and because he did not specifically admit the
use of a firearm, Higgs claimed they should not qualify. See id.
We rejected this argument for two reasons. First, we explained that because the
language of § 3592(c)(2) “quite plainly requires only that the previous conviction
‘involv[e] the use or attempted or threatened use of a firearm,’ it authorizes and likely
requires the court to look past the elements of the offense to the offense conduct.” Higgs,
353 F.3d at 316 (emphasis supplied). Second, we observed that while the Supreme Court
in Taylor “noted that the categorical approach was proper to avoid ‘the practical
difficulties and potential unfairness of a factual approach,’ the Court has made it clear
that an individualized determination is required in the death penalty context.” Id. at 317
(citations omitted) (emphasis in original) (quoting Taylor, 495 U.S. at 601).
Since Higgs, the Eighth Circuit has concluded the categorical approach should not
apply, this time to § 3592(c)(4). See United States v. Rodriguez, 581 F.3d 775, 805–07
(8th Cir. 2009). Rodriguez noted that the district court in that case agreed with Higgs that
the word “involving” “suggests fact-finding beyond” the categorical approach. Id. at
805. But it recognized that other courts apply the categorical approach to criminal
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statutes containing the word “involves,” ultimately concluding, “[T]he meaning of
‘involv[es]’ does not resolve the issue.” Id. at 806 (comparing United States v. McCall,
439 F.3d 967, 970 (8th Cir. 2006) (en banc) (applying categorical approach to the
residual clause in § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii): “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious
potential risk of physical injury to another”), overruled by Begay v. United States, 553
U.S. 137 (2008), with Nijhawan, 557 U.S. at 32 (declining to apply the categorical
approach to statute reaching a conviction that “involves fraud or deceit in which the loss
to the victim or victims exceeds $10,000” (quoting 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43)(M)(i))
Rather than relying on the term “involving,” the court turned to examine the
structure and language of § 3592(c)(4) and the FDPA. See Rodriguez, 581 F.3d at 806.
First, Rodriguez acknowledged that, unlike sentencing enhancements under the Armed
Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), pursuant to which courts routinely
employ the categorical approach, when a § 3592(c) statutory aggravator is proven under
the FPDA, a death sentence does not automatically result; the defendant is rather deemed
eligible for a death sentence. See 581 F.3d at 806. The jury still must weigh any
aggravating factors against mitigating factors, an individualized balancing that the ACCA
does not contemplate. See id.
Next, the FDPA “mandates a fact-intensive process in death-eligible proceedings.”
Rodriguez, 581 F.3d at 806. At the penalty phase, the FDPA allows for the introduction
of oral testimony, evidence of the effect of the offense on the victim and the victim’s
family, and a victim impact statement identifying evidence of the extent and scope of
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injury and loss. See id. But factual inquiry is not permitted under the ACCA. See
Taylor, 495 U.S. at 601 (noting that, under the ACCA, “the practical difficulties and
potential unfairness of a factual approach are daunting”). Indeed, unlike the ACCA
context, during the penalty phase of an FDPA matter, a Presentence Report is not
prepared, but rather, “information may be presented as to any matter relevant to the
sentence, including any mitigating or aggravating factor permitted or required to be
considered under section 3592.”
Rodriguez, 581 F.3d at 806 (quoting § 3593(c)).
Moreover, “Taylor prohibits relying on witness testimony in ACCA cases; the FDPA
expressly permits witnesses to testify.” Id. at 807. Based on these reasons, the Eighth
Circuit joined this court in rejecting the categorical approach to an FDPA prior
conviction aggravator. See id. n.13 (noting its decision comports with Higgs).
Some district courts have followed Rodriguez’s reasoning and have held that the
categorical approach is inappropriate as applied to § 3592(c)(2). See, e.g., United States
v. Con-ui, No. 3:13-cr-123, 2017 WL 783437, at *11–12 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 1, 2017)
(allowing the circumstance-specific approach because “[t]he objective of the sentencing
stage of a capital case is to allow the jury a full appraisal of the defendant,” and “the jury
should receive ‘as much information as possible when it makes the sentencing decision’”
(quoting United States v. Lujan, 603 F.3d 850, 858 (10th Cir. 2010); Gregg v. Georgia,
428 U.S. 153, 203–04 (1976)); United States v. Basciano, 763 F. Supp. 2d 303, 348
(E.D.N.Y. 2011) (finding Rodriguez to be “well reasoned, . . . persuasive, and [to] appl[y]
equally to § 3592(c)(2)”), aff’d on other issues, 634 F. App’x 832 (2d Cir. 2015); United
States v. Anh The Duong, No. CR-01-20154, 2010 WL 275058, at *3 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 14,
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2010) (“This Court agrees with the Eighth Circuit’s analysis in Rodriguez, which
comports with the Fourth Circuit’s in Higgs.” (internal quotation marks omitted)). One
district court held likewise before Rodriguez or Higgs. See United States v. Chong, 98 F.
Supp. 2d 1110, 1121 (D. Haw. 1999) (noting that the FDPA provides for “the
introduction of ‘any’ relevant information in support of aggravating factors,” and the
Supreme Court “mandate[s] particularize[d] capital sentencing proceedings”).
Our research has turned up a single decision holding that the categorical approach
should apply to prior conviction aggravators in the eligibility phase. See United States v.
Smith, 630 F. Supp. 2d 713, 717 (E.D. La. 2007). Smith emphasized the distinction
between the eligibility and selection phases of the penalty phase: “Statutory aggravating
factors are relevant to the eligibility phase of capital sentencing, which is to narrow the
pool of offenders eligible for death. It is at the selection phase that the individualization
of the sentencing occurs, likewise the weighing of the aggravating and mitigating
circumstances to determine whether a death sentence should in fact be imposed.” Id.
(emphases in original). And “the issue of individualized sentencing is simply not at play
in the eligibility phase of a capital sentencing.” Id. at 718. 11
Smith also distinguished Higgs, explaining that Smith was originally charged
with an aggravated robbery conviction but pled guilty to a robbery conviction; that is,
“[i]n effect, he pled out from the alleged use of a firearm.” Id. at 717. In Higgs,
however, Higgs “admitted as part of the guilty plea colloquy” that he used a firearm,
telling the court at the plea colloquy that the prosecutor accused him of using the wrong
gun. See id. This led Smith to hold that, even apart from the propriety of the categorical
approach, “allowing evidence of Smith’s use of a firearm to prove the statutory
aggravating factor alleged, in light of Smith’s guilty plea to a lesser charge which did not
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Smith notwithstanding, we find the reasoning of the majority view to be most
The categorical approach was born out of the ACCA, and the Supreme Court has
gone to great lengths to reiterate the non-factual, element-based nature of ACCA
enhancements. Last year in Mathis v. United States, the Court explained that in ACCA
a sentencing judge may look only to the elements of the
offense, not to the facts of the defendant’s conduct.
That simple point became a mantra in our . . . ACCA
decisions. At the risk of repetition (perhaps downright
tedium), here are some examples. In Shepard [v. United
States]: ACCA “refers to predicate offenses in terms not of
prior conduct but of prior ‘convictions’ and the ‘element[s]’
of crimes.” 544 U.S. [13,] 19 [(2005)] (alteration in original).
In James v. United States: “[W]e have avoided any inquiry
into the underlying facts of [the defendant’s] particular
offense, and have looked solely to the elements of [burglary]
as defined by [state] law.” 550 U.S. 192, 214 (2007). In
Sykes v. United States: “[W]e consider [only] the elements of
the offense[,] without inquiring into the specific conduct of
this particular offender.” 564 U.S. 1, 7 (2011) (quoting
James, 550 U.S. at 202; emphasis in original). And most
recently (and tersely) in Descamps [v. United States]: “The
key [under ACCA] is elements, not facts.” 133 S. Ct. ,
136 S. Ct. 2243, 2251–52 (2016) (some alterations, citations, and internal quotation
have firearm use as an element nor as part of the factual basis of the plea, would be
unfair, unduly prejudicial and confusing to the jury.” Id. at 718.
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marks omitted). Mathis gave three reasons why an element-only, categorical inquiry is
favorable in the ACCA context: (1) the text favors that approach; (2) a judge cannot
constitutionally go beyond identifying the crime of conviction and what elements that
crime required; and (3) an elements focus avoids unfairness to the defendant. See id. at
2252. We find none of these reasons applicable to the FDPA context.
First, while Descamps states that when it comes to the ACCA, “the key is
elements, not facts,” the FDPA stands for the converse: the key is facts, not elements.
See Caro, 597 F.3d at 626 (4th Cir. 2010) (“[T]he decision whether to select the death
penalty should involve ‘an individualized determination on the basis of the character of
the individual and the circumstances of the crime.’” (quoting Zant, 462 U.S. at 879)). For
example, the FDPA requires the following procedures aimed at a specific, individualized,
• The FDPA mandates “a separate sentencing hearing to
determine the punishment to be imposed.” 18 U.S.C.
• At the hearing, no presentence report is prepared; instead,
“information may be presented as to any matter relevant to
the sentence,” which includes both aggravating and
mitigating factors “required to be considered.” Id. § 3593(c).
• The Government may present “any information relevant to an
aggravating factor.” Id. § 3593(c).
• “Information is admissible regardless of its admissibility
under the rules governing admission of evidence at criminal
trials except that information may be excluded if its probative
value is outweighed by the danger of creating unfair
prejudice, confusing the issues, or misleading the jury.” Id.
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• “The burden of establishing the existence of any aggravating
factor is on the government, and is not satisfied unless the
existence of such a factor is established beyond a reasonable
• “The jury . . . shall consider all the information received
during the hearing [and] shall return special findings
identifying any aggravating factor or factors set forth in [§
3592] found to exist . . . .” Id. § 3593(d).
It is obvious Congress’s intent was that information relevant to the particular defendant
and his or her particular sentence is fair game in the entirety of the sentencing hearing.
Applying the categorical approach, even to one phase of that hearing, flouts this intent.
On this point, Appellant attempts to liken the text of (c)(2) to the type of language
Taylor held to invoke the categorical approach.
But Taylor itself distinguished a
definition of violent felony that contained the phrase “has as an element,” which refers to
the elements of statute, from one using the word “involves,” which likely refers to “the
facts of each defendant’s conduct.” 495 U.S. at 600–01. Thus, when the FDPA was
enacted in 1994, the use of the word “involv[es]” was actually a signal that a fact-based
approach was warranted. We have very recently held, in fact, that a provision of the
Mandatory Victims Restitution Act referring to “an offense . . . that is . . . an offense
against property under [Title 18]” did not warrant the categorical approach because it
“contain[ed] no language suggesting that courts look only to the elements of Title 18
statutory offenses.’” See Ritchie, 858 F.3d at 210 (quoting Nijhawan, 557 U.S. at 37).
We likewise find no indication in (c)(2) that courts should look only to the elements of a
state conviction involving the use of a firearm.
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Moreover, under Appellant’s reading of § 3592(c)(2), the phrase “involving the
use or attempted or threatened use of a firearm” would carry different meanings
throughout the penalty phase, which would prove unwieldy. See Ritchie, 858 F.3d at 210
(We must “account for practical considerations when determining whether to employ the
categorical or circumstance-specific approach.” (internal quotation marks omitted)). In
Appellant’s view, the court would first decide (for example) whether Appellant’s
Virginia conviction for use of a firearm in a felony categorically “involv[ed] the use or
attempted or threatened use of a firearm.” § 3592(c)(2). Assuming, arguendo, the court
ruled the crime categorically involved the use of a firearm, the conviction would be
submitted to the jury, which would consider whether the crime actually involved the use
of a firearm and weigh the circumstances of that crime against mitigating evidence, all of
which would require fact-based determinations.
Second, unless the defendant directs otherwise, the sentencing hearing must be
conducted before a jury; therefore, disallowing a judge’s legal determination at the outset
of the eligibility phase skirts any potential Sixth Amendment problem contemplated by
Mathis. See § 3593(b)(1)–(3). Indeed, in the FDPA context, the jury is specifically
required to “determine which [aggravating factors], if any, exist.” § 3592(c); see also
§ 3593(d) (“The jury . . . shall return special findings identifying any aggravating factor
. . . set forth in [§ 3592] found to exist.” (emphasis supplied)). If “an aggravating factor
required to be considered under § 3592(c) is found to exist,” only then shall “the jury . . .
consider whether all the aggravating factor or factors found to exist sufficiently outweigh
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all the mitigating factor or factors found to exist justify a sentence of death.” § 3593(e).
Thus, Congress intended that the jury not only do the weighing process, but also initially
find which statutory aggravating factors apply to a particular defendant’s sentence. If the
court decided a prior conviction did not categorically involve the use of a firearm (if, as
Appellant contends and the dissent posits, the Virginia definition of firearm is broader
than the federal definition), the statutorily mandated function of the jury is completely
Our dissenting colleague believes employing the categorical approach would
result in a fairer sentencing process, noting the gravity and seriousness of a death
sentence. See post at 81–83. He admits that his approach “may render certain defendants
who would otherwise be death eligible no longer able to be considered for capital
punishment.” Id. at 90. In our view, however, any perceived fairness conferred to a
defendant by use of the categorical approach in the FDPA context must be weighed
against Congress’s obvious intent, careful delineation of the stages of death penalty
sentencing, and the overall purpose of the FDPA.
The dissent observes that even if a judge determines a prior conviction involves
the use of a firearm, a capital jury must still determine “whether the government has
sufficiently proved that the prior convictions exist,” thus retaining some role, albeit
perhaps a “perfunctory” one. Post at 79 & n.6. Under the dissent’s view, however, the
capital jury’s role in the eligibility phase is reduced to superficiality, and we fail to see
how this satisfies the “jury’s prescribed function” as set forth in § 3592(c) and § 3593(d).
Post at 80.
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Appellant and our dissenting colleague believe we should view the eligibility and
selection phases in separate vacuums: although they recognize the FDPA’s emphasis on
an individualized sentence, they attempt to confine that emphasis to the selection phase
only. But the idea that an individualized analysis has no place in the eligibility phase is
neither present in, nor contemplated by, the FDPA. For starters, the FDPA does not
mandate trifurcated proceedings, meaning that courts are not required to separate the
eligibility and selection inquiries into two separate hearings. In fact, we have held the
Constitution does not require trifurcation. See Booth-El v. Nuth, 288 F.3d 571, 582–83
(4th Cir. 2002) (rejecting argument that denial of request for trifurcation violates due
process); see also United States v. Fell, 531 F.3d 197, 240 (2d Cir. 2008).
And holding that the categorical approach should apply in this case, but not a case
with a bifurcated proceeding, like Higgs, could have untoward (and ultimately unfair)
consequences. Generally, instead of requiring the Government consent to trifurcation,
courts have followed normal motion practice procedure, taking each side’s arguments in
turn. There are many reasons a defendant would desire trifurcation and an eligibility
hearing first; for example, in the case at hand, evidence of the Zion crimes only came in
at the selection phase, decreasing the potential for prejudice in the eligibility phase. But
holding that the categorical approach should apply as a matter of law in the eligibility
phase would surely discourage any zealous prosecutor from consenting to a trifurcated
proceeding. See, e.g., United States v. Bolden, 545 F.3d 609, 618–19 (8th Cir. 2008);
United States v. Johnson, 362 F. Supp. 2d 1043, 1099 (N.D. Iowa 2005), aff'd in part,
495 F.3d 951 (8th Cir. 2007) (noting defendant’s motion for trifurcation “became one of
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the most contentious” motions before the court).
Finally, we cannot ignore the Supreme Court’s admonition that the statutory
aggravators “must genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty.”
Zant, 462 U.S. at 877 (emphasis supplied). The dissent is correct that its approach would
narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty, but any such narrowing must
also be genuine -- that is, it must be done in an “objective, evenhanded, and substantively
rational way.” Caro, 597 F.3d at 623 (quoting Zant, 462 U.S. at 879).
The death penalty is reserved “for the most culpable defendants committing the
most serious offenses,” Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2467 (2012), but under the
categorical approach, the judge would “presume” that the prior conviction “rested upon
nothing more than the least of the acts criminalized” under the criminal statute at issue,
Mellouli v. Lynch, 135 S. Ct. 1980, 1986 (2015) (quoting Moncrieffe v. Holder, 133 S. Ct.
1678, 1684–85 (2013)); accord Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions, 137 S. Ct. 1562, 1568
(2017). We fail to see how the categorical approach, which focuses on the least culpable
act proscribed by statute rather than the particular culpability of a defendant, narrows in
any genuine way the type of defendants who should be eligible for a death sentence. 13
We take issue with the dissent’s suggestions that it is “bizarre,” “especially
strange,” and somehow “twists death penalty jurisprudence” to hold both (1) that
permitting post-offense convictions to qualify as previous convictions can “narrow the
class of all murderers to only murderers with previous convictions,” and (2) that the
categorical approach does not “genuinely narrow” the class of persons eligible for the
death penalty. Post at 81–82. Believing the former certainly does not preclude believing
the latter. Higgs has already decided that using post-offense convictions genuinely
narrows the class of murderers to those murderers who received a qualifying conviction
before sentencing. See Higgs, 353 F.3d at 318 (suggesting prior conviction aggravators
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Finally, we address the Supreme Court’s decisions in James v. United States, 550
U.S. 192 (2007), and Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), upon which our
dissenting colleague relies. The James Court applied the categorical approach to the
ACCA’s now-defunct residual clause, which provided a sentencing enhancement for a
prior conviction that “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical
injury to another.” See 550 U.S. at 201–02 (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii)).
Appellant suggests and the dissent proclaims that James, and the Court’s subsequent
reaffirmation and explanation of the categorical approach in Johnson, implicitly
overruled Higgs’s holding on the categorical approach issue. See post at 66; see also
Appellant’s Br. 59–60.
It is true that Higgs relied on the term “involv[e]” to demonstrate that a factspecific inquiry was warranted, while James held that crimes defined by types of conduct
“involved,” especially within the ACCA, are susceptible to the categorical approach. See
James, 550 U.S. at 202 (noting that the Court had taken the categorical approach “with
respect to other offenses under ACCA”). But we are not convinced that James overruled
Higgs on this point. To begin, the Higgs court was careful to state that the use of the
“do not concern matters directly related to the death penalty offense [but] [r]ather [are]
concerned with the characteristics of the offender as of the time that he is sentenced”).
But the categorical approach prohibits consideration of previous offenses as a
“characteristic” of the defendant; rather, it places the defendant’s prior history in a
generic vacuum. As such, it is not a “genuine” narrowing of murderers to death-eligible
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word “involving” “authorizes and likely requires the court to look past the elements of the
offense.” 353 F.3d at 316 (emphasis supplied). Higgs in no way held that any statute
using the word “involving” precluded the categorical approach, and James in no way
held that any statute containing that word required the categorical approach.
example, elsewhere in § 3592(c), Congress uses the word “involved” in the context of a
plainly non-categorical statutory aggravators. See, e.g., § 3592(c)(6) (“The defendant
committed the offense in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner in that it
involved torture or serious physical abuse to the victim.” (emphasis supplied));
§ 3592(c)(13) (“The defendant committed the offense in the course of engaging in a
continuing criminal enterprise in violation of [21 U.S.C. § 848(c)], and that violation
involved the distribution of drugs to persons under the age of 21 . . . .” (emphasis
supplied)). In other words, the word “involves” can still “authorize” courts to look past
the elements of the offense. Therefore, Higgs and James can coexist. 14
As for Johnson, that decision stated, “Taylor explained that the relevant part of the
[ACCA] refers to ‘a person who . . . has three previous convictions’ for -- not a person
who has committed -- three previous violent felonies or drug offenses,” and “[t]h[e]
emphasis on convictions indicates that Congress intended the sentencing court to look
only to the fact that the defendant had been convicted of crimes falling within certain
The dissent also states that the word involving “on its own” cannot signify that
the categorical approach is inappropriate. Post at 66. But Higgs did not rely on that
word alone; it also noted the “individualized determination” required in the death penalty
context. See 353 F.3d at 317.
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categories, and not to the facts underlying the prior convictions.” 135 S. Ct. at 2562
(citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Although § 3592(c)(2) is written in
terms of a person “ha[ving] previously been convicted of” a certain crime, rather than a
person “who has committed” a certain crime, Johnson’s analysis was specifically
couched in terms of the ACCA, and as discussed above, there are ample reasons the
categorical approach is suitable to the ACCA and not the FDPA. Therefore, we cannot
say Johnson has overruled Higgs either.
In any event, our analysis does not rise and fall on the Higgs decision. As the
Eighth Circuit stated, the meaning of “involving” simply “does not resolve the issue.”
Rodriguez, 581 F.3d at 806. We find the reasoning of Rodriguez, its progeny, Mathis,
and the language of the FDPA itself most persuasive and supportive of Higgs’s ultimate
resolution on this point. Therefore, we conclude the categorical approach does not apply
to § 3592(c)(2).
Having decided the categorical approach does not apply, we conclude that the
Arlington crimes clearly qualify as prior convictions of violent felonies involving a
firearm pursuant to § 3592(c)(2).
For the events occurring on February 27, 2010,
Appellant was convicted of, inter alia, use of a firearm in a felony, and breaking and
entering while armed.
Any challenge Appellant brings regarding whether these
convictions “involv[ed] the use or attempted or threatened use of a firearm . . . against
another person” is basically a sufficiency challenge that must fail. § 3592(c)(2).
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Both J.T. and K.M. testified that Appellant had a firearm, and we have held,
“Eyewitness testimony is sufficient to prove that a person used a firearm.” United States
v. Redd, 161 F.3d 793, 797 (4th Cir. 1998). The Government need not “present expert
testimony” that a defendant’s putative firearm was “capable of expelling a projectile . . .
absent some indication that the firearm was a fake.” McNeal, 818 F.3d 141, 149 (4th Cir.
2016) (citing United States v. Jones, 907 F.2d 456, 460 (4th Cir. 1990)).
testimony of eyewitnesses that a gun was used in [an offense] is a sufficient basis for the
jury to find that a ‘firearm’ was used” during the offense. Id. (internal quotation marks
omitted). The evidence showed that Appellant owned a Glock 22, and that his Glock was
designed to expel a projectile using an explosive, see id. at 4437 (testimony of Officer
Keith Ahn), satisfying the federal definition of a firearm. See 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(3)(A).
And it is without question that Appellant attempted or threatened to use the firearm on
both J.T. and M.N. by showing them the gun and forcing them to perform certain acts.
Therefore, Appellant’s convictions regarding the February 27 conduct satisfy
§ 3592(c)(2), making Appellant death eligible.
Appellant also contends that the district court erred by allowing him to forego
challenges to the Government’s eligibility and selection phase evidence and allowing him
to waive a mitigation defense without “first determining his competency to make those
decisions.” Appellant’s Br. 112. We review a court’s failure to conduct a competency
hearing or evaluation for abuse of discretion. See United States v. Mason, 52 F.3d 1286,
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1289 (4th Cir. 1995). We “may not substitute [our] judgment for that of the district court;
rather, we must determine whether the court’s exercise of discretion, considering the law
and the facts, was arbitrary or capricious.” Id.
During the course of the pre-trial proceedings, Appellant persistently urged the
court to allow him to represent himself, citing disputes with counsel. In early 2013, the
district court sua sponte ordered a competency evaluation, the results of which were
outlined in a letter to the district court on February 19, 2013, approximately one year
before trial began.
Psychiatrist Richard Ratner conducted the evaluation, which was comprised of a
three hour jail interview with Appellant and lengthy discussions with three attorneys who
knew or had worked with Appellant. Dr. Ratner did not conduct an extensive evaluation
of Appellant’s previous psychiatric history or his developmental, family, social,
educational, occupational, legal, and substance use history. Dr. Ratner’s letter mentions
that Appellant had been examined by two other mental health professionals, but he
neither requested nor had access to the results of that testing. Nonetheless, Dr. Ratner
concluded that Appellant did not suffer from a diagnosable mental illness, was fully
competent to stand trial, and had the requisite mental and psychological capacity to
Notably, Dr. Ratner’s letter explained that Appellant had a strong aversion to
discussing his personal history and a strong opposition to pursuing a mitigation defense.
He questioned Appellant’s judgment on these points, but explained that his choices
should not have as significant an effect on the guilt phase. He noted, however, that if a
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question of competency was raised at the penalty phase, the court could deal with that
issue at a later time.
Three days after the competency evaluation letter was written, the district court
held a hearing in which Appellant himself stated it was probably “not in my best interests
[sic] to represent myself.” Appellee’s Br. 95 (quoting sealed J.A.). The district court,
after hearing from counsel and reviewing Dr. Ratner’s letter, determined Appellant was
competent to stand trial and granted a request for substitute counsel, who represented
Appellant throughout the guilt phase.
After Appellant was found guilty, he again clashed with counsel over whether to
present mitigation evidence in the penalty phase. The district court held an ex parte
hearing and asked defense counsel, “Have you seen a change in the mental health of Mr.
Torrez over the last year?” Counsel responded that he and his co-counsel were “unable
to file an affidavit that says [Appellant] is not competent.” J.A. 4400–01. The district
court also stated that it had “checked with the Alexandria Detention Center to see
whether there were any kind of incidents or any notes regarding a change in [Appellant’s]
mental health, and they could not identify any.” Id. at 4401. The court then directed
counsel to outline the mitigation case it would present, questioned Appellant at length,
and ultimately found Appellant to be competent and allowed him to go forward with
standby counsel present at the penalty phase.
Appellant now contends that the district court should have ordered a second
competency evaluation and hearing before allowing Appellant to proceed to sentencing
with only standby counsel and before he made the choice to present no mitigation
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At any time prior to sentencing a defendant, the district court “shall order [a
competency] hearing on its own motion, if there is reasonable cause to believe that the
defendant may presently be suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him
mentally incompetent to the extent that he is unable to understand the nature and
consequences of the proceedings against him.” 18 U.S.C. § 4241(a); see also United
States v. Moussaoui, 591 F.3d 263, 291 (4th Cir. 2010). The well-established test for
competence is whether the defendant “has sufficient present ability to consult with his
lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding -- and whether he has a
rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.” Dusky v.
United States, 362 U.S. 402, 402 (1960) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted).
“To prevail, the defendant must establish that the trial court ignored facts raising a bona
fide doubt” regarding competency. Walton v. Angelone, 321 F.3d 442, 459 (4th Cir.
2003) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Appellant contends that the district court was presented with several facts that
mandated a court-ordered competency evaluation and hearing: defense counsel’s alleged
“somewhat equivocal opinion” that Appellant was competent, Appellant’s Br. 114;
defense counsel’s view that Appellant’s decision to forego a mitigation defense was
irrational; the 2013 competency evaluation applied only to the guilt phase, and
Appellant’s mental state in 2014 was “exacerbated by the stress of a capital trial,” id.; the
Government recommended another competency evaluation in the event of an appellate
waiver; and there were “red flags” that Appellant was not competent, id. at 116.
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We have reviewed these circumstances and conclude the district court did not
abuse its discretion in failing to order a second evaluation and hearing.
counsel’s opinion about Appellant’s competency was unequivocal, and we have
recognized a defendant can make a “rational choice” to forego a mitigation defense.
Chandler v. Greene, 1998 WL 279344, at *8 (4th Cir. May 20, 1998) (quoting Rees v.
Peyton, 384 U.S. 312, 314 (1966) (per curiam)).
We also reject the notion that a
defendant’s desire to “fight the case” at the guilt stage makes per se irrational his decision
to forego a mitigation defense at the penalty phase, once he has in fact been convicted.
J.A. 4398. In addition, although the 2013 competency evaluation was conducted for
purposes of the guilt phase, Dr. Ratner nonetheless mentioned Appellant’s desire that his
counsel withhold investigation of mitigation evidence, and explained that while it “may”
lead to a question of competency at the penalty phase, it was not a “manifestation of a
diagnosable mental illness.” Appellee’s Br. 95 (quoting sealed J.A.).
In addition, the Government’s request for a second competency evaluation came in
its Position on Sentencing, and was made in the distinct context of a potential appellate
waiver. Indeed, in that filing, the Government acknowledged, “[N]o . . . showing [of a
mental disease or defect] has been made with respect to the defendant.” J.A. 5246 n.1.
Finally, the “red flags” mentioned by Appellant were either present before the 2013
evaluation, mentioned in the context of a wholly different issue in the case, or wholly
non-probative of Appellant’s mental state.
Therefore, Appellant has failed to
demonstrate that the district court “ignored facts raising a bona fide doubt” regarding his
competency, and we reject his arguments on this point. Walton, 321 F.3d at 459 (internal
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quotation marks omitted).
Other Sentencing Arguments
We have reviewed Appellant’s remaining sentencing arguments: whether
Appellant’s Fifth Amendment rights were violated when the Government submitted and
failed to correct allegedly false or misleading evidence in the eligibility phase; aside from
the competency issue discussed above, whether the district court otherwise erred in
allowing Appellant to waive his right to contest or rebut the Government’s case in the
eligibility and selection phases of the sentencing trial; and whether the Eighth
Amendment barred the admission of evidence of the Zion murders in the selection stage.
We find each of these arguments to be without merit.
For the foregoing reasons, we find no reversible error as to the issues raised by
Appellant. We are also satisfied that (1) the evidence clearly “supports the special
finding of the existence of an aggravating factor required to be considered under section
3592,” and (2) the sentence of death was not “imposed under the influence of passion,
prejudice, or any other arbitrary factor.” 18 U.S.C. § 3595(c)(1).
affirm Appellant’s conviction and death sentence.
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DIAZ, Circuit Judge, concurring:
I concur in Judge Thacker’s thorough opinion in this case, save for footnote 10.
Specifically, I see no need to second-guess our previous holding in United States v. Higgs
that conduct occurring after the commission of a capital offense can make a defendant
eligible for the death penalty. In my view, Higgs presented compelling justifications,
rooted in the Federal Death Penalty Act’s language, for considering all conduct occurring
before the sentencing phase of a capital case.
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FLOYD, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part:
I agree with my colleagues in the majority that none of Appellant Jorge Torrez’s
complaints with respect to his trial merit reversal. However, I would find that Torrez was
ineligible for the death penalty and accordingly vacate his death sentence and remand for
resentencing. Therefore, while I concur in Parts I–III of the majority opinion, as well as
Part IV.A and Part IV.C, I must dissent from the remainder of Part IV and the ultimate
conclusion in Part V.
The majority opinion adequately lays out the facts and the basic premises of the
Federal Death Penalty Act (FDPA), 18 U.S.C. §§ 3591–98, and they need not be repeated
in depth here. I thus restate only the most relevant information. The FDPA contains
sixteen enumerated aggravating factors for a defendant convicted of homicide, which
generally relate to either characteristics of the defendant, the offense, or the victim. See
18 U.S.C. § 3592(c)(1)–(16). At the end of this list is a catchall, known as the “nonstatutory aggravator,” that permits the jury to “consider whether any other aggravating
factor for which notice has been given exists.” Id. § 3592(c). We concern ourselves
today with two of the five statutory aggravators that deal with previous convictions for
those convicted of homicide—§ 3592(c)(2) and (c)(4). 1
18 U.S.C. § 3592(c)(3), (c)(10), and (c)(12) are also concerned with previous
convictions. Statutory aggravators related to prior convictions also exist for capital
defendants accused of crimes other than homicide. See 18 U.S.C. § 3592(b)(1) &
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The government proceeded against the Appellant Jorge Torrez in this FDPA case
on the exclusive basis of those two statutory aggravating factors. Torrez was convicted
and found death eligible by the jury on the basis of these two statutory aggravators, and
subsequently the jury recommended he be sentenced to death.
Although I have concerns about the appropriateness of using post-offense conduct
as “previous convictions,” I share the majority’s view that we are bound by United States
v. Higgs, 353 F.3d 281 (4th Cir. 2003), with respect to this challenge. See ante at 22–39. 2
Where I part ways with my colleagues in the majority is in their belief that the holding in
Higgs with respect to the categorical approach was not implicitly overruled by the
Supreme Court. See ante at 40–44, 52–54. I would find that (1) the holding regarding
the categorical approach in Higgs was overruled implicitly by the Supreme Court in
In joining the majority’s conclusion in Part IV.A, I note that the holding from
Higgs on this issue appears contrary to our conclusions in other contexts. See, e.g.,
United States v. Pressley, 359 F.3d 347, 351 (4th Cir. 2004) (“Unlike the sentencing date,
the violation date is not subject to the whims of the court’s docket nor vulnerable to
manipulation by either party. Rather, it would be ‘absurd’ to adopt an interpretation, not
supported by the plain text of the statute, which would subject a defendant to a mandatory
fifteen-year minimum sentence based on the mere fortuity of his sentencing date.”).
However, I also acknowledge that to the extent Pressley and Higgs are viewed to be in
conflict on this holding, Higgs would control under the earliest-case-governs rule. See
McMellon v. United States, 387 F.3d 329, 333 (4th Cir. 2004) (en banc) (“When
published panel opinions are in direct conflict on a given issue, the earliest opinion
controls, unless the prior opinion has been overruled by an intervening opinion from this
court sitting en banc or the Supreme Court.”).
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James v. United States, 550 U.S. 192 (2007); 3 (2) the categorical approach does apply to
determining whether a conviction can satisfy 18 U.S.C. § 3592(c)(2) or (c)(4); and (3)
Torrez’s convictions for the Arlington Offenses do not satisfy either 18 U.S.C.
§ 3592(c)(2) or (c)(4) and thus Torrez is ineligible for the death penalty. Accordingly, I
would vacate his death sentence and remand this case for resentencing.
The categorical approach was first announced in Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S.
575, 599–602 (1990)—four years before the passage of the FDPA. In Taylor, the Court
considered 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), one of the penalty provisions of the Armed Career
Criminal Act (ACCA), which provides a sentence enhancement “[i]n the case of a person
who . . . has three previous convictions . . . for a violent felony or a serious drug offense,
or both.” 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1). The Court in Taylor found that the language of the
statute indicated that Congress wanted the focus of this sentencing enhancement to be
focused on the fact of conviction, rather than the facts underlying the convictions. 495
U.S. at 600. As the Court explained:
Section 924(e)(1) refers to “a person who . . . has three previous
convictions” for—not a person who has committed—three previous violent
felonies or drug offenses. Section 924(e)(2)(B)(i) defines “violent felony”
as any crime punishable by imprisonment for more than a year that “has as
an element”—not any crime that, in a particular case, involves—the use or
threat of force.
James was later overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. United States, 135 S.
Ct. 2551 (2015).
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Id. The Court went on to further find that the legislative history “show[ed] that Congress
generally took a categorical approach to predicate offenses,” and that there would be
“practical difficulties and potential unfairness” in applying a factual approach to
determining whether previous convictions fit within the defined “violent felonies” in the
ACCA. Id. at 601–02.
In rejecting the categorical approach for 18 U.S.C. § 3592(c)(2), the court in Higgs
relied on the distinction drawn in Taylor to find that the language used in (c)(2) did not
support applying the categorical approach. See Higgs, 353 F.3d at 316–17. The court
explained that “[b]ecause the language [of (c)(2)] quite plainly requires only that the
previous conviction ‘involv[e] the use or attempted or threatened use of a firearm,” it
authorizes and likely requires the court to look past the elements of the offense to the
offense conduct.” Id. at 316 (third modification in original).
However, three and half years after our decision in Higgs, the Supreme Court
issued its opinion in James. In James, the Court expressly stated that it would apply the
categorical approach of Taylor in determining whether an offense was one that “involves
conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” 550 U.S. at
201–02 (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii)). To further clarify, the Court explained it
would “consider whether the elements of the offense are of the type that would justify [the
offense’s] inclusion within [18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii)], without inquiring into the
specific conduct of this particular offender.” Id. at 202.
Subsequently, in Johnson, the statutory language that had been at issue in James
was deemed unconstitutionally vague. 135 S. Ct. at 2557. In reaching this conclusion,
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the Court responded to the dissenting Justices’ suggestion that the provision could be
saved by simply abandoning the categorical approach. The Court stated that this was not
an option, for the categorical approach was clearly applicable. The Court explained that
the determination of whether the categorical approach should apply is based on the
language referring to “a person who . . . has three previous convictions,” and not on the
language in the ACCA that defines a violent felony as “ha[ving] as an element” the use or
threatened use of force. Id. at 2562 (citing Taylor, 495 U.S. at 600).
The majority concludes that the holdings of James and Johnson have not
implicitly overruled our holding in Higgs. Ante at 52–54. I cannot agree. Our holding in
Higgs was that the (c)(2) aggravator contains the word “involving,” which precludes
application of the categorical approach. 353 F.3d at 316–17. This sole premise has been
wholly undermined by the Supreme Court’s use of the categorical approach in James for
a statute that similarly used the word “involves.” After James and the emphasis of the
word “conviction” in Johnson, it cannot be said that the word “involving”—on its own—
signifies that the categorical approach is inappropriate.
As the majority points out, some statutes using the word “involving” are analyzed
under the categorical approach, and some statutes using the word “involving” are not.
See ante at 53. 4 But this is itself evidence that Higgs is no longer good law with respect
The majority reasons that Congress used the word “involved” in other
aggravators that are clearly not susceptible to the categorical approach. Ante at 53. This
point, while correct, is inapposite. Both of the aggravators that do so—§ 3592(c)(6) &
(c)(13)—are focused on characteristics of the offense of conviction and not
characteristics of the defendant as in (c)(2) and (c)(4). It would be nonsensical for the
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to this contested holding. Under the logic of Higgs, this disparity would be impossible;
Higgs dictates that no statute using the word “involving” could be subject to the
categorical approach. Notably, in reaching this conclusion I am not claiming that the
implied overruling of Higgs by James dictates that the categorical approach must be
applied—the overruling only means that we must consider the issue anew.
The majority cites to the Eighth Circuit’s decision in United States v. Rodriguez,
581 F.3d 775, 806 (8th Cir. 2009), in support of its conclusion that Higgs has not been
overruled. To the contrary, Rodriguez only serves to undermine the idea that Higgs has
not been implicitly overruled in this respect. In Rodriguez, the court noted, “the meaning
of ‘involving’ does not resolve the issue.” 581 F.3d at 806. Then, the court in Rodriguez
went on to determine that the categorical approach did not apply based on the structure
and language of the statute, but did not base that conclusion solely on the word
“involving.” Id. at 806–07. This is in stark contrast to our analysis in Higgs, which, as
explained above, was based on the word “involving” alone. Rodriguez demonstrates that
the word “involving” is not the end of inquiry when it comes to the categorical approach;
this is fully consistent with my understanding of James. Again, I do not claim that James
signifies that the word “involving” dictates the use of the categorical approach. I simply
categorical approach to apply to characteristics of the offense of conviction, but applying
the categorical approach to characteristics of the defendant is exactly what we do in the
ACCA context and what we should do here as I explain further in Section II.B, infra.
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believe James signifies that the word “involving” cannot by itself dictate anything—
examination of other factors will always be necessary.
Further, at least one district court has expressly called into question our holding in
Higgs, declining to rely on it due to the Supreme Court’s holding in James. See United
States v. Basciano, 763 F. Supp. 2d 303, 347 (E.D.N.Y. 2011), aff’d on other issues, 634
F. App’x 832 (2d Cir. 2015). Another district court has expressly disagreed with our
logic in Higgs for the reasons later espoused by the Court in James. See United States v.
Sablan, 555 F. Supp. 2d 1177, 1191 (D. Colo. 2006) (rejecting the word “involved” as a
basis for distinguishing the FDPA from the ACCA, and noting “[t]his [was] the
distinction that Higgs relied on”).
At bottom, Higgs relied exclusively on the fact that the previous conviction for a
firearm offense aggravator at (c)(2) includes offenses that “involv[e] the use or attempted
or threatened use of a firearm . . . against another person.” The Supreme Court in James
and Johnson has disavowed the idea that the word “involve” alone can render a
sentencing enhancement provision immune from the categorical approach. Accordingly,
I would find that James and Johnson have implicitly overruled our conclusion in Higgs
that the categorical approach does not apply to (c)(2), and start my analysis on this issue
from a blank slate.
Turning now to whether the categorical approach applies to previous convictions
for the aggravators in 18 U.S.C. § 3592(c)(2) and (c)(4), I would find that it does. The
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majority rightly points out that authority on this issue is scant. See ante at 41–44. The
only circuits to weigh in thus far have been this Court and the Eighth Circuit, and then a
smattering of district courts. The majority of courts to opine on this issue have concluded
that the categorical approach would not apply; however, the majority is not always right.
To provide context for why I do not agree with the view of the majority opinion
here, I briefly review the Supreme Court’s death penalty jurisprudence. The Court has
broken down the penalty phase of capital sentencing into two different phases—
eligibility and selection. Tuilaepa v. California, 512 U.S. 967, 971 (1994); see also Jones
v. United States, 527 U.S. 373, 376–79 (1999) (explaining procedures under the FDPA
and discussing how the jury must unanimously find eligibility before it can proceed to the
selection decision). At the eligibility phase, “the trier of fact must convict the defendant
of murder and find one ‘aggravating circumstance’ (or its equivalent).” Tuilaepa, 512
U.S. at 972. Then, the Court has “imposed a separate requirement for the selection
decision, where the sentencer determines whether a defendant eligible for the death
penalty should in fact receive that sentence.” Id. (emphasis added). “What is important
at the selection stage is an individualized determination on the basis of the character of
the individual and the circumstances of the crime.” Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 879
(1983) (first emphasis added, second emphasis in original). As noted by the Court, “[t]he
objectives of these two inquiries can be in some tension, at least when the inquiries occur
at the same time.” Tuilaepa, 512 U.S. at 973.
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In reaching its conclusion, the majority relies on opinions from courts that reject
the categorical approach by relying on the Supreme Court’s requirement that death
penalty sentencing be individualized. See ante at 43–44; Rodriguez, 581 F.3d at 806–07
(“[T]he FDPA mandates a fact-intensive process in death-eligible proceedings. . . .
Beyond the FDPA, the factual inquiry required in death penalty cases has constitutional
significance.”); United States v. Con-ui, No. 13-cr-123, 2017 WL 783437, at *11–12
(M.D. Pa. Mar. 1, 2017) (relying on Zant and the cases cited here to explain that the
individualized sentencing requirement in capital punishment precludes application of the
categorical approach); Basciano, 763 F. Supp. 2d at 348 (adopting Rodriguez in whole on
this issue); United States v. Anh The Duong, No. CR-01-20154, 2010 WL 275058, at *3
(N.D. Cal. Jan. 14, 2010) (same); United States v. Chong, 98 F. Supp. 2d 1110, 1120 (D.
Haw. 1999) (“Defendant’s argument that the statute provides that the jury is only to
consider the fact of conviction, rather than the conduct underlying the conviction, flies in
the face of the Supreme Court’s mandate to particularize capital sentencing
proceedings.”). Each of these cases cites to Zant or its progeny in support of this idea,
but as is clear from the language of Zant itself, the individualized determination is
necessary at the selection phase—not the eligibility phase.
The only court to appreciate and give meaning to this distinction is the opinion of
the district court in in United States v. Smith, 630 F. Supp. 2d 713 (E.D. La. 2007). As
the court there recognized, “the issue of individualized sentencing is simply not at play in
the eligibility phase of capital sentencing.” Smith, 630 F. Supp. 2d at 718. The court
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explained, “It is at the selection phase that the individualization of the sentencing occurs,
likewise the weighing of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances to determine
whether a death sentence should in fact be imposed.” Id. at 717. In contrast, the purpose
of the eligibility phase “is to narrow the pool of offenders eligible for death.” Id. And, as
emphasized by Justice Blackmun in a powerful dissent, the point of the individualized
approach in capital sentencing is to “afford the sentencer the power and discretion to
grant mercy in a particular case, and provid[e] avenues for the consideration of any and
all relevant mitigating evidence that would justify a sentence less than death.” Callins v.
Collins, 510 U.S. 1141, 1144 (1994) (Blackmun, J., dissenting). This point was further
underscored in Kansas v. Marsh, 548 U.S. 163 (2006), where the Court explained that:
[A] state capital sentencing system must: (1) rationally narrow the class of
death-eligible defendants; and (2) permit a jury to render a reasoned,
individualized sentencing determination based on a death-eligible
defendant’s record, personal characteristics, and the circumstances of his
Marsh, 548 U.S. at 173–74 (citing Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 189 (1976) (opinion
of Stewart, Powell, and Stevens, JJ.).
Thus, the clear purpose of individualized
sentencing is for the selection stage once the defendant has become a “death-eligible
defendant.” To flip the individualized sentencing requirement on its head and use it as a
means to find a defendant death eligible perverts the requirement and renders it
The majority resists this conclusion, and instead finds that that the legal distinction
between eligibility and selection “is neither present in, nor contemplated by, the FDPA.”
Ante at 50. I cannot agree. Although not expressly laid out, the FDPA first requires a
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unanimous finding by the jury of at least one statutory aggravator in order to consider
whether the defendant may be sentenced to death. See 18 U.S.C. § 3593(d)–(e). Further,
it is only once the defendant has been found death eligible pursuant to one of the statutory
aggravators listed in 18 U.S.C. § 3592 that the jury may proceed to consider any nonstatutory aggravators and any mitigation evidence proffered by the defendant. See Jones,
527 U.S. at 377–78 & n.2; see also 18 U.S.C. § 3593(d)–(e). No one can dispute that
mitigation evidence and non-statutory aggravator evidence cannot be considered by the
jury in its eligibility phase decision; even the government itself has conceded below that
different constitutional protections attach at eligibility and selection. J.A. 122–23 (“The
clear implication of the holding [in Ring] was that eligibility and selection were distinct
components of the process, with the former being subject to, among other things, various
constitutional requirements.” (emphasis added)).
Thus, I cannot agree with the majority’s conclusion that the FDPA does not
provide for a difference between eligibility and selection. Rather, I believe that those are
two different issues, involving distinct burdens and types of evidence available for
consideration, and the jury must be instructed accordingly on what it may consider and
how to reach each conclusion. 5
Because of the differences between the eligibility and selection phases, separate
proceedings—as took place here—are, if not required, at least recommended. See
Tuilaepa, 512 U.S. at 973 (noting that conducting eligibility and selection phases jointly
can result in “some tension”).
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Having concluded that there is a meaningful difference between the eligibility and
selection phases that must be factored into this decision, I now move on to the question of
whether we should apply the categorical approach to the (c)(2) and (c)(4) statutory
aggravators. I conclude that we should.
As the majority discusses, the ACCA is the original source of the categorical
approach. See ante at 45–46. But the categorical approach is not limited to the ACCA.
It applies in the context of immigration cases, see, e.g., Gonzalez v. Duena-Alvarez, 549
U.S. 183, 186 (2007), to determining crimes of violence under the Sentencing Guidelines,
see, e.g., United States v. Montes-Flores, 736 F.3d 357, 364 (4th Cir. 2013), and to
determining crimes of violence under 18 U.S.C. § 16 and the myriad statutes that
incorporate that definition, see, e.g., Karimi v. Holder, 715 F.3d 561, 567 (4th Cir. 2013).
Determining whether the categorical approach should be applied is a matter of
statutory interpretation. In interpreting the statute, we examine the text to determine
whether Congress intended to “refer to a generic crime, or . . . to the specific way in
which an offender committed the crime on a specific occasion.” Nijhawan v. Holder, 557
U.S. 29, 34 (2009).
The Supreme Court has often explained the rationales for applying the categorical
approach to the ACCA, doing so most recently in Mathis v. United States, 136 S. Ct.
2243, 2252–53 (2016): (1) the text favors that approach by referring to “a defendant who
has three ‘previous convictions’ . . . rather than one who has . . . committed that crime;”
(2) Sixth Amendment concerns in permitting a judge at sentencing to find facts beyond
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the fact of conviction; and (3) perceived unfairness to defendants posed by a contrary
approach. Id. These rationales guide the following analysis of the statutory language at
issue in this case.
I turn first to the text.
When a statutory scheme “asks what offense the
[defendant] was ‘convicted’ of,” our focus must move to an elements-based approach, as
“‘[c]onviction’ is ‘the relevant statutory hook.’” Moncrieffe v. Holder, 133 S. Ct. 1678,
1685 (2013) (quoting Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder, 130 S. Ct. 2577, 2588 (2010)) (first
modification added, second in original). Applying this standard here, it is clear that the
categorical approach should be applied. In 18 U.S.C. § 3592(c)(2) and (c)(4), the focus
of the statute is on “conviction” and on what offense the defendant has been convicted of,
rather than on what specifically the defendant did.
By eliding the difference between eligibility and selection, the majority reads the
FDPA to require a fact-intensive inquiry. See ante at 46 (citing United States v. Caro,
597 F.3d 608, 626 (4th Cir. 2010), in turn quoting Zant, 462 U.S. at 879). As explained
above, however, this is not so at the eligibility phase. The majority then reiterates the
holding of Higgs that the word “involves” in (c)(2) and (c)(4) necessitates a circumstance
specific analysis. See ante at 47. Again, for the reasons explained above, James and
Johnson have squarely rejected this conclusion.
The text of the FPDA clearly focuses on a person’s having been convicted, and not
on the committed conduct. A comparison of the statutory language in the FDPA and that
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in the ACCA and the INA—where we do apply the categorical approach—is
• “[T]he defendant has previously been convicted of a Federal or State
offense punishable by a term of imprisonment of more than 1 year,
involving the use or attempted or threatened use of a firearm (as defined in
section 921) against another person.” 18 U.S.C. § 3592(c)(2) (emphasis
• “The defendant has previously been convicted of 2 or more Federal or State
offenses, punishable by a term of imprisonment of more than 1 year,
committed on different occasions, involving the infliction of, or attempted
infliction of, serious bodily injury or death upon another person.” Id.
§ 3592(c)(4) (emphasis added) (FDPA).
• “In the case of a person who violates section 922(g) of this title and has
three previous convictions by any court . . . for a violent felony or a serious
drug offense, or both . . . such person shall be fined under this title and
imprisoned not less than fifteen years . . . .” Id. § 924(e)(1) (emphasis
• “Any alien who is convicted of an aggravated felony at any time after
admission is deportable.” 8 U.S.C. § 1227(a)(2)(A)(iii) (emphasis added)
There can be no meaningful textual difference between “has previously been convicted”
as is found in the FDPA, “has . . . previous convictions,” as is found in the ACCA, and
“is convicted” as found in the INA. The majority focuses on drawing out distinctions
between the FDPA and the ACCA, but never addresses the stark textual similarity that
exists between the FDPA and the INA.
Further illustrating the importance of this textual analysis are the Court’s holdings
in Nijhawan v. Holder, 557 U.S. 29 (2009) and Kawashima v. Holder, 565 U.S. 478
(2012), two different cases interpreting a provision of the Immigration and Nationality
Act (INA), 8 U.S.C. § 1101, et seq. The INA provides that “Any alien who is convicted
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of an aggravated felony at any time after admission is deportable.”
§ 1227(a)(2)(A)(iii). The INA then goes on to define “aggravated felony” in a number of
ways, one of which is “an offense that  involves fraud or deceit  in which the loss to
the victim or victims exceeds $10,000.” Id. § 1101(a)(43)(M)(i). Interestingly, the Court
has interpreted the two different clauses in this same statutory provision to require
different approaches—one categorical, and one circumstance-specific.
In Nijhawan, the Court had considered the second part of that definition—the
“loss” clause. The Court concluded that the “loss” clause required circumstance-specific
analysis, and thus did not require application of the categorical approach. 557 U.S. at 32.
The Court reasoned that the definition of “aggravated felony” in the INA contained two
types of definitions for the term: (1) generic crime definitions; and (2) specific
circumstances definitions. Id. at 37–38. In concluding that the “loss” phrase was a
specific circumstances definition, the Court held that the “loss” phrase “refer[s] to the
conduct involved ‘in’ the commission of the offense of conviction, rather than to the
elements of the offense.” Id. at 39.
Later, in Kawashima, the Court considered the first part of the definition—the
“fraud or deceit” clause.
When considering that part of the definition, the Court
“employ[ed] a categorical approach by looking to the statute defining the crime of
conviction, rather than to the specific facts underlying the crime.” 565 U.S. at 483.
Thus, even where the Court had already considered part of the statutory provision to be
circumstance-specific, the Court still in a later case applied the categorical approach to
another part of the same provision based on the textual differences between the two
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clauses. The aggravators in (c)(2) and (c)(4) much more closely resemble the “fraud or
deceit” clause to which the categorical approach is applied, and not the “loss” clause
under which there is a circumstance-specific analysis. To the extent the government and
the majority argue that because the categorical approach does not apply to some
aggravators means it cannot apply to any aggravators, this pair of cases soundly rejects
such a position.
Additionally, the majority focuses on the specifics of the sentencing hearing in
order to conclude that the text of the FDPA does not support applying the categorical
Ante at 46–47.
The majority concludes that because aggravating and
mitigating evidence may be presented during the sentencing hearing, this indicates that
the categorical approach cannot be applied. Id. This emphasis is misplaced not only for
the reasons explained above regarding eligibility versus selection, but also because it
ignores what actually happens in an ACCA case.
In an ACCA case, once the court applies the categorical approach to determine
whether the mandatory minimum sentencing enhancement applies, that does not conclude
the sentencing process.
The court must still go through the Guidelines, determine
whether there should be changes to the offense level, and determine an appropriate
sentence guided by the sentencing factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). Nothing prohibits a
sentencing court from considering the specifics of previous offenses in determining, for
example, whether a lengthier sentence is needed to ensure deterrence. Indeed, 18 U.S.C.
§ 3553(a) specifically instructs the sentencing court to consider “the nature and
circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant.” 18
Pg: 78 of 91
U.S.C. § 3553(a)(1) (emphasis added). I can see no meaningful distinction between those
instructions to a sentencing court in a non-capital case, and the instruction that at a
sentencing hearing for a capital defendant “information may be presented as to any
matter relevant to the sentence, including any mitigating or aggravating factor.” 18
U.S.C. § 3593(c) (cited by the majority, ante at 46). And yet, the majority concludes that
the former permits the categorical approach, while the latter prohibits it.
Finally, in rejecting the textual argument, the majority fears that employing the
categorical approach would be unwieldy, because the meaning of the (c)(2) and (c)(4)
aggravators “would carry different meanings throughout the penalty phase.” Ante at 48.
This is an overstated fear, and internally inconsistent with our approach to the FDPA
sentencing process. Other statutory language from FDPA has different meanings in the
eligibility and selection phases, and this has not proved problematic. For instance, the
plain text of the FDPA requires only that the jury “identify any aggravator factor or
factors set forth in section 3592 found to exist” to sentence a defendant to death Id.
§ 3593(d). However, this scheme has been interpreted to require that for the purposes of
eligibility, that provision from § 3593(d) must mean a specifically enumerated factor
under § 3592, but for the purposes of selection, it means the additional non-statutory
aggravators. See Jones, 527 U.S. at 377–78 & n.2. This language “carry[ing] different
meanings throughout the penalty phase,” ante at 48, has not proved problematic, and thus
this concern should not drive our reasoning here.
In sum, I find the text supports and mandates that we apply the categorical
approach to the (c)(2) and (c)(4) aggravators.
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Turning next to concerns between judge and jury, I recognize that the same Sixth
Amendment concerns that exist in the ACCA context are not present in the FDPA
context, as the statute requires the sentencing decisions to be rendered either by the jury
or the court upon the defendant’s motion and the government’s approval. See 18 U.S.C.
§ 3593(b). However, the role of the jury is still a relevant factor to be considered. The
majority concludes that applying the categorical approach would “completely usurp”
the jury’s statutory role in capital sentencing. Ante at 49. This is incorrect.
Applying the categorical approach would be entirely consistent with the role of the
jury in the FDPA.
The judge would first determine whether the prior convictions
categorically qualify under (c)(2) and (c)(4).
Then, the jury would determine at
eligibility whether the government has sufficiently proved that the prior convictions
exist. 6 Assuming the case moves on to selection, the jury would then hear all relevant
To the extent this is open to criticism that this would be a perfunctory role for the
jury to perform, I note that we require it of the jury in the context of an 18 U.S.C.
§ 922(g)(1) felon in possession case. The jury must find that the defendant was actually a
felon prohibited from possessing a firearm as an element of the offense. See United
States v. Langley, 62 F.3d 602, 604 (4th Cir. 1995) (en banc) (laying out the elements of
the § 922(g)(1) offense, the first of which is the defendant “had been convicted in some
court of a crime punishable by a term of imprisonment exceeding one year”). Although
often stipulated to by the defendant for strategic reasons, the jury still must find that
element. See United States v. Muse, 83 F.3d 672, 679 (4th Cir. 1996) (“[O]nce a
defendant pleads not guilty to a crime and elects to proceed before a jury, the district
court must instruct, and the jury must consider, whether the government has proved
beyond a reasonable doubt all the elements involved in the crime charged—even if the
defendant and the government have entered a stipulation as to certain of those
Pg: 80 of 91
evidence about prior convictions for its selection decision, and appropriately return
findings about aggravating factors, mitigating factors, and a sentence recommendation.
This envisioned scheme does not detract from the jury’s prescribed function of
“consider[ing] each . . . aggravating factor for which notice has been given and
determin[ing] which, if any, exist.” 18 U.S.C. § 3592(c).
Further, in expressing its concerns regarding the role of the jury, the majority
ignores the way in which we already use this scheme under the ACCA for offenses
committed under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A), which proscribes using or carrying a firearm
during and in relation to a crime of violence as defined by 18 U.S.C. § 16. In those
crimes, the court first determines—under the categorical approach—whether the alleged
underlying offense qualifies as a crime of violence. The jury then determines—using all
available facts—(1) whether a crime of violence was committed; and if so, (2) whether a
firearm was used during that crime. See United States v. Hopkins, 310 F.3d 145, 152–53
(4th Cir. 2002). Thus, the role of the jury under my interpretation for the eligibility stage
of the (c)(2) and (c)(4) aggravators is similar to how we consistently use the jury in the
determination of guilt or innocence under the ACCA.
Therefore, while recognizing a lessened Sixth Amendment concern on this issue, I
conclude that the jury would retain a meaningful role in the assessment of eligibility
factors under the categorical approach.
Pg: 81 of 91
Finally, the issue of perceived unfairness weighs in favor of applying the
categorical approach. The majority concludes that because the FDPA does not require
bifurcated sentencing proceedings, there can be no perceived unfairness to the defendant.
Ante at 50. The majority further concludes that the categorical approach would fail to
genuinely narrow the class of death eligible defendants. Ante at 51. I disagree on both
In responding to both conclusions from the majority I am again guided by the
significant difference that must exist in the eligibility and selection phase of sentencing.
Even if conducted in one unified hearing, there are still different standards guiding the
jury regarding what evidence may be considered at each phase, a point I make in great
detail in Sections II.B.2 and II.B.3.a, supra, and need not repeat here.
The second conclusion additionally twists death penalty jurisprudence completely.
It is quite bizarre to find that applying the categorical approach to these aggravators
somehow runs afoul of the Eight Amendment requirement that statutory aggravators
“genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty.” Zant, 462 U.S. at
877. Applying the categorical approach will necessarily decrease the number of death
eligible defendants under these aggravators, not increase the number. This concern is
Having found that Higgs’s holding was implicitly overruled, I do not reach the
issue of drawing a distinction between the unitary sentencing proceeding that occurred in
Higgs and the bifurcated sentencing proceeding that occurred below. Thus, I do not
respond to the majority’s arguments on this point.
Pg: 82 of 91
especially strange in light of our shared conclusion that permitting post-offense
convictions to qualify as previous convictions “expands the class of offenders with
previous convictions . . . [and] nonetheless narrows the class of all murderers to only
murderers with previous convictions.” Ante at 36. Applying the categorical approach
further does not narrow the class of defendant in an arbitrary manner such that this
interpretation would otherwise run afoul of the Eighth Amendment. Cf. Godfrey v.
Georgia, 446 U.S. 420, 427 (1980) (“[T]he penalty of death may not be imposed under
sentencing procedures that create a substantial risk of that the punishment will be
inflicted in an arbitrary and capricious manner.”).
Moreover, the majority also argues that the categorical approach would prevent a
jury from giving a sentence of death to “the most culpable defendants committing the
most serious offenses,” Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2467 (2012). Notably, this
fear that defendants would be excluded is at odds with the majority’s concern that the
class of eligible persons is not genuinely narrowed. And nothing about this approach
would violate the requirement that the class of death-eligible defendants be narrowed in a
genuine manner, as the categorical approach is, in fact, “objective, evenhanded, and
substantively rational.” See Caro, 597 F.3d at 623 (quoting Zant, 462 U.S. at 879) (cited
by majority, ante at 51).
Additionally, this concern is completely unfounded. Congress has made clear who
the “most culpable” defendants are—those who satisfy the statutory aggravators. It is not
for us to make a moral judgment about who should and should not be considered the
“most culpable;” it is for us to interpret the statutory aggravator as written by Congress
Pg: 83 of 91
and determine whether a defendant actually falls within that aggravator. Further, so long
as the defendant’s prior convictions qualify, nothing about applying the categorical
approach at the eligibility phase would prevent information about the specifics of the
prior convictions from being introduced at the selection phase. Additionally, if there are
other aggravators that make the defendant death eligible, the categorical approach to the
prior convictions statutory aggravator does not matter for the purposes of eligibility, and
the information could be presented to the jury as a non-statutory aggravator during
The real issue in determining unfairness to the defendant is the inequity that would
occur if non-elemental facts were used to render the defendant death eligible. Using such
facts is inherently unfair, for “[s]tatements of ‘non-elemental fact’ in the records of prior
convictions are prone to error precisely because their proof is unnecessary.” Mathis, 136
S. Ct. at 2253. The reasoning for why this would be unfair to defendants in the ACCA
context rings true in the FDPA context:
At trial, and still more at plea hearings, a defendant may have no incentive
to contest what does not matter under the law; to the contrary, he “may
have good reason not to”—or even be precluded from doing so by the
court. When that is true, a prosecutor’s or judge’s mistake as to means,
reflected in the record, is likely to go uncorrected. Such inaccuracies
should not come back to haunt the defendant many years down the road by
triggering a lengthy mandatory sentence.
Id. (citations and footnote omitted). But in the FDPA context, this does not trigger a
lengthy mandatory sentence; instead, it triggers a defendant’s actual life and right to
continued existence being put in jeopardy. There can be no greater unfairness.
Pg: 84 of 91
Therefore, I find that perceived unfairness to the defendant also weighs in favor of
applying the categorical approach.
Finally, I would assess the convictions used by the government to determine
whether they satisfy the (c)(2) and (c)(4) aggravators.
In order for Torrez’s death
sentence to be vacated, the convictions must fail to satisfy both of the aggravators. I
would conclude that they do.
Torrez’s prior convictions under Virginia law cannot make him death eligible
under (c)(2). To qualify as a prior conviction under (c)(2), the prior conviction must
involve “a firearm (as defined in section 921 [of Title 18]).” 18 U.S.C. § 3592(c)(2).
Instructive on this issue is Mellouli v. Lynch, 135 S. Ct. 1980 (2015), an immigration case
applying the categorical offense to a prior state drug conviction. There, the alien had
pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor drug offense in Kansas; however, neither the criminal
charge nor the plea agreement identified which drugs qualified as controlled substances,
and the statute broadly covered multiple controlled substances. Id. at 1983. Immigration
officials then sought to remove the alien under a provision of the INA that “authorizes the
removal of an alien ‘convicted of a violation of . . . any law or regulation of a State, the
United States, or a foreign country relating to a controlled substance (as defined in
section 802 of Title 21).’” Id. at 1984 (quoting 8 U.S.C. § 1227(a)(2)(B)(i)) (omission in
original). The Kansas state crime did not define a controlled substance with respect to
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the federal definition contained in 21 U.S.C. § 802; indeed, “it was immaterial under that
[state] law whether the substance was defined in 21 U.S.C. § 802,” and the state
prosecutors did not “charge, [n]or seek to prove, that [the alien] possessed a substance on
the § 802 schedules.” Id. Accordingly, the Court found that federal immigration law did
not authorize removal, because under the categorical approach, the government could not
“connect an element of the alien’s conviction to a drug ‘defined in [§ 802].’” Id. at 1991
(addition in original).
Torrez’s conviction and the (c)(2) aggravator present the same problem. The
(c)(2) aggravator specifically links the definition of a firearm to 18 U.S.C. § 921.
Therefore, we must look to the definitions in 18 U.S.C. § 921 of a firearm, and compare
that definition with the conduct criminalized by the Virginia statutes.
exempts antique firearms from the definition of “firearm,” id. § 921(a)(3); exempts
certain shotguns, id.§ 921(a)(4)(B); and requires that the weapon actually be capable of
expelling a projectile or being readily converted to do so, id. § 921(a)(3)(A). Section 921
also expressly includes “any destructive device” within the definition of “firearm.” Id.
The statute under which Torrez has four convictions, Va. Code § 18.2-53.1,
prohibits the use, attempted use, or display of “any pistol, shotgun, rifle, or other firearm”
in connection with certain felonies. As the Supreme Court of Virginia has held, this
statute criminalizes not only “the use or display of an actual firearm that has the
capability of expelling a projectile by explosion,” but also “an instrumentality that has the
appearance of having the capability of an actual firearm.” Startin v. Commonwealth, 706
Pg: 86 of 91
S.E.2d 873, 877 (Va. 2011) (citing Holloman v. Commonwealth, 269 S.E.2d 356, 358
(Va. 1980)). Thus, Virginia gives “a broad construction” to the term “firearm” in Va.
Code. § 18.2-53.1. Id. at 878 (internal quotation marks omitted).
Torrez also has one conviction for common law burglary under Va. Code § 18.289, which has a grading enhancement if the defendant “was armed with a deadly weapon
at the time.” Although no case from the Supreme Court of Virginia has defined “deadly
weapon” for the purposes of this burglary statute, there have been lower court opinions
defining the term “deadly weapon” for the purposes of another statute which criminalized
bank burglary. See Justiss v. Commonwealth, 734 S.E.2d 699, 707 (Va. App. 2012) (“A
deadly weapon is any object or instrument, not part of the human body, that is likely to
cause death or great bodily injury because of the manner and under the circumstances in
which it was used.” (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted) (citing Cox v.
Commonwealth, 240 S.E.2d 524, 526 (Va. 1978)); see also Va. Prac. Jury Instructions
§ 80:23 (same). Thus, a knife could be used as “a deadly weapon” to satisfy the grading
enhancement in Virginia.
Because Virginia criminalizes even the use of toy guns that look like real ones
under Va. Code § 18.2-53.1 and the use of any deadly weapon during a burglary under
Va. Code § 18.2-89, neither crime requires the use of “a firearm (as defined in section
Additionally, the record discloses no evidence that the Virginia prosecutors
sought to prove that the weapons used by Torrez in the commission of those offenses
satisfied the federal definition of “a firearm (as defined in section 921).”
Accordingly, Torrez has no convictions that satisfy the (c)(2) aggravator.
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In order for the (c)(4) aggravator to be met, the prior offenses must (1) be
committed on at least two separate occasions, and (2) “involv[e] the infliction of, or
attempted infliction of, serious bodily injury or death upon another person.” 18 U.S.C.
§ 3592(c)(4). The two relevant dates here are February 10, 2010, and February 27,
2010—the two dates on which the Arlington Offenses were committed. Torrez does not
challenge whether the February 27, 2010 offenses satisfy (c)(4), but he does challenge the
February 10, 2010, offenses. 8 If the February 10, 2010, offenses do not categorically
“involv[e] the infliction of, or attempted infliction of, serious bodily injury or death upon
another person,” then the (c)(4) aggravator cannot be met.
Torrez was convicted of committing robbery in violation of Va. Code § 18.2-58
and abduction with nefarious intent in violation of Va. Code § 18.2-48 on February 10,
2010, in connection with his attack on M.N. I would find that neither offense can satisfy
The requirement in (c)(4) of “seriously bodily injury or death” is similar to what
we know as the “force clause” contained in the definition of “violent felony” under the
ACCA and the definition of “crime of violence” under the career offender sentencing
Torrez does not concede that the February 27, 2010 offenses qualify, see
Appellant’s Br. at 73, but as the government rightly responds, failure to present an
argument as to those offenses in the opening brief constitutes waiver, see Appellee’s Br.
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guideline, 9 as well as in other areas of Title 18 and the sentencing guidelines. Therefore,
cases interpreting that clause throughout the relevant legal landscape are relevant here.
Importantly, the (c)(4) requirement is higher than the force clause in the ACCA and the
Guidelines. Whereas the ACCA and the Guidelines require only “physical force” and
permit such force to be “threatened,” see 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(i); U.S.S.G.
§ 4B1.2(a)(1), the (c)(4) aggravator requires actual or attempted infliction of “serious
bodily injury or death,” 18 U. S.C. § 3592(c)(4). Thus, if a crime categorically fails
under either the force clause of the ACCA or the Guidelines, it must a fortiori fail the
First, we look at Torrez’s conviction for common law robbery. Recently, in
United States v. Winston, 850 F.3d 677 (4th Cir. 2017), we considered whether common
law robbery in violation of Va. Code § 18.2-58 was a violent felony under the ACCA.
We held that “the minimum conduct necessary to sustain a conviction for Virginia
common law robbery does not necessarily include the use, attempted use, or threatened
use of ‘violent force . . . capable of causing physical pain or injury to another person.’”
850 F.3d at 685 (quoting Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133, 140 (2010)) (omission
See 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(i) (“[T]he term ‘violent felony’ means any
crime . . . that has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical
force against the person of another . . . .”) (emphasis added); U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(1)
(“The term ‘crime of violence’ means any offense . . . that has as an element the use,
attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another . . . .”)
Pg: 89 of 91
in original). Accordingly, we found that robbery in violation of Va. Code § 18.2-58
could not satisfy the force clause of the ACCA and could not be a prior conviction for the
purposes of the ACCA sentencing enhancement. As such, Torrez’s robbery conviction
also cannot qualify under the (c)(4) aggravator.
Because Torrez’s robbery conviction fails to satisfy the (c)(4) aggravator, the
abduction offense must do so in order for the death sentence to be upheld. It does not.
Torrez was conviction of abduction with nefarious intent in violation of Va. Code § 18.248. This offense raises the issue of divisibility under the categorical approach, because it
lays out five different options for violating the statute.
If a statute “set[s] out elements in the alternative and thus create[s] multiple
versions of the crime,” we consider the statute divisible and apply what we call the
modified categorical approach. United States v. Montes-Flores, 736 F.3d 357, 365 (4th
Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). “[A] crime is divisible [for the purposes of
the categorical approach] only if it is defined to include multiple alternative elements
(thus creating multiple versions of a crime), as opposed to multiple alternative means (of
committing the same crime).” Omargharib v. Holder, 775 F.3d 192, 198 (4th Cir. 2014)
(citations omitted). In the instance of a divisible crime, we “look to a limited class of
documents (for example, the indictment, jury instructions, or plea agreement and
colloquy) to determine what crime, with what elements, a defendant was convicted of.”
Mathis, 136 S. Ct. at 2249.
Pg: 90 of 91
I need not decide whether the offense set out in Va. Code § 18.2-48 is divisible; I
can assume it is for the purposes of this analysis. Assuming divisibility and looking to
the jury’s actual verdict form, Torrez was convicted of “abduction . . . with the intent to
defile and/or the intent to extort money or gain pecuniary benefit” in violation of Va.
Code § 18.2-48. J.N. 257. Thus, it is entirely unclear from the verdict form if the intent
agreed upon by the jury was “intent to defile” or “intent to extort money or gain
pecuniary benefit” with respect to his abduction of M.N. Assuming the least culpable
criminal conduct under the categorical approach, the jury could have found Torrez guilty
of abduction with intent to extort money. Extortion requires no force, let alone the actual
or threatened infliction of serious bodily injury or death. As a result, the abduction
offense does not qualify under the (c)(4) aggravator. Therefore, no February 10, 2010,
offense qualifies, and thus (c)(4) cannot be satisfied because the only qualifying crimes
were all committed on February 27, 2010.
Because I find that our holding in Higgs with respect to the categorical approach
has been implicitly overruled by the Supreme Court, I would consider the issue anew and
find that the categorical approach should apply to the aggravators found at 18 U.S.C.
§ 3592(c)(2) & (c)(4). Then, applying the categorical approach, I would find that the
prior convictions asserted by the government do not satisfy either of those statutory
aggravators. Accordingly, I would vacate the sentence of death in this case, strike the
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(c)(2) and (c)(4) aggravators from the government’s notice of intent to seek the death
penalty, and remand for resentencing.
The death penalty is a complicated area of our law, especially when dealing with
what makes a defendant eligible for capital punishment. I do not question the wisdom of
Congress in passing the FDPA, nor do I question the wisdom of this nation’s vaunted
prosecutors from using all available tools in their zealous prosecution of crime. But
capital punishment must be effected fairly, consistently, without prejudice, and with the
opportunity for mercy. Although the categorical approach may render certain defendants
who would otherwise be death eligible no longer able to be considered for capital
punishment, applying this understanding hews to the language of the statute as drafted by
For these reasons, I respectfully dissent from the majority’s holding with respect
to Torrez’s sentence.
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