USA v. Martrell Ransom
OPINION filed: AFFIRMED. Decision not for publication pursuant to local rule 28(g). Cornelia G. Kennedy, Circuit Judge; Danny J. Boggs, Circuit Judge and Jeffrey S. Sutton, Circuit Judge, AUTHORING.
Case: 07-6123 Document: 006110929868 Filed: 04/18/2011 Page: 1
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR FULL-TEXT PUBLICATION
File Name: 11a0236n.06
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT
LEONARD GREEN, Clerk
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
Apr 18, 2011
ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED
STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
WESTERN DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
Before: KENNEDY, BOGGS and SUTTON, Circuit Judges.
SUTTON, Circuit Judge. George Vannockay called the Memphis Police Department early
in the morning of May 13, 2006, to report a carjacking. Police found Martrell Ranson driving
Vannockay’s gold Chevy Lumina the next day and were trying to pull Ranson over when he leapt
from the car and took off, dropping a pistol as he fled. Police caught Ranson and arrested him.
Vannockay picked him out of a lineup, and Ranson pled guilty to unlawfully possessing a firearm.
See 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). At sentencing, Ranson insisted that Vannockay had loaned him the car in
exchange for crack cocaine, but the district court credited Vannockay’s contrary testimony and
enhanced Ranson’s sentence on the ground that the underlying offense “involved carjacking.”
U.S.S.G. § 2B3.1(b)(5). Ranson challenges the district court’s credibility determination on appeal.
The district court heard divergent accounts of the events leading to Vannockay’s call to the
police. Vannockay said he left his apartment a little after midnight to drive to a nearby convenience
Case: 07-6123 Document: 006110929868 Filed: 04/18/2011 Page: 2
United States v. Ranson
store. As he approached his car, Ranson and another man walked up and asked to bum a cigarette.
Vannockay, who had never seen the men before, obliged and turned to get in his car, but as he sat
down in the driver’s seat, Ranson blocked him from closing the door. He flashed a pistol at his hip
and ordered Vannockay to start the car and to place his cell phone and wallet in the passenger’s seat.
Ranson ordered him out of the car and drove off with the other man. Vannockay returned to his
apartment, told his wife and called the police.
Ranson and his cousin, Kevin Caldwell, told a different story. They had known Vannockay
for some time. Vannockay frequented the apartment complex where Caldwell lived and where
Ranson sometimes stayed, mainly because he made daily purchases of crack cocaine from Ranson
and other dealers. After buying the drugs, Vannockay typically would call on a prostitute named
Necci who lived in the complex and took drugs as payment. Sometimes, if he was low on cash,
Vannockay would loan a dealer his car while he visited Necci, and that, according to Ranson, is what
happened here. Ranson gave Vannockay some drugs and arranged to borrow his car for a few hours.
One thing led to another, and Ranson did not return for over twelve hours, but he “planned on
throwing [Vannockay] a few extra dollars” for the inconvenience. R.53 at 51. When Ranson
returned to the complex around 2:00 a.m., however, he could not find Vannockay, so he parked the
car on the street where Vannockay could see it. The next morning, Ranson “had a couple more
errands to run,” so he borrowed the car again until the police found him later that day. Id. at 57.
Vannockay, Ranson suspects, must have grown scared when he could not find Ranson or the car and
invented the carjacking tale to hide the truth from his wife.
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United States v. Ranson
Choosing between competing accounts of this nature is a task usually reserved “for the trial
court, not for the court of appeals,” United States v. Roche, 321 F.3d 607, 611 (6th Cir. 2003), and
with good reason. The district court presides over the sentencing hearing, where it hears the
witnesses’ testimony and eyes their manner. Instead of having a front row seat to this testimony, we
must settle for a lifeless transcript, drained of context, precluding us from making our own fully
informed credibility determination. We thus review findings of this type for clear error, United
States v. Esteppe, 483 F.3d 447, 452 (6th Cir. 2007), upholding the district court’s credibility finding
unless the record leaves us “with the definite and firm conviction” that it made a mistake, United
States v. Johnston, 595 F.3d 292, 295 (6th Cir. 2010) (quoting United States v. Jeross, 521 F.3d 562,
569 (6th Cir. 2008)).
The district court permissibly credited Vannockay’s testimony, and United States v. Ables,
167 F.3d 1021 (6th Cir. 1999), marks the path showing why. Ables was charged with operating an
illegal gambling business, see 18 U.S.C. § 1955, and faced a four-level enhancement as “an
organizer or leader,” see U.S.S.G. § 3B1.1(a). Ables, 167 F.3d at 1023, 1034. The district court
heard competing testimony about the leadership issue. Id. at 1035. The district court applied the
enhancement, and we concluded that its “choice between two permissible views of the evidence
[could not] . . . be clearly erroneous.” Id. The district court’s “decision to credit the testimony of
one of two or more witnesses” was “virtually” unassailable, even where both sides “told a coherent
and facially plausible story,” given the standard of review. Id. So too here: The district court
credited a plausible account of the events at hand.
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United States v. Ranson
No doubt, as Ranson points out, Vannockay’s testimony raised questions. He acknowledged
on cross-examination that he knew people at Caldwell and Ranson’s apartment complex, including
Necci, though he did not know that she was a prostitute and maintained that their relationship was
“[j]ust social.” R.53 at 25. When pressed, he explained that he “met her somewhere around WalMart.” Id. at 25. Vannockay also was “not going to say [he] never” used crack cocaine, though he
insisted he was not using it at the time. Id. at 17–18. He was living on disability for “a vision
impairment” but professed that only one eye ailed him and that he could see well enough to drive,
even at night. Id. at 17. Some of Vannockay’s statements surely qualify as curious, but they “hardly
present the kinds of clear inconsistencies that compel us to cast aside the district court’s credibility
assessment.” United States v. Mitchell, 295 F. App’x 799, 803 (6th Cir. 2008) (internal quotation
marks omitted). In particular, Vannockay said nothing at the sentencing hearing that contradicted
his account of the carjacking.
Compare this to the deficiencies in Ranson and Caldwell’s testimony. Ranson first told
police that he borrowed the car from “Mike,” not Vannockay. R.53 at 82–83. Caldwell and Ranson
also seemed to disagree about how often Ranson sold drugs to Vannockay. Caldwell suggested that
Ranson was Vannockay’s primary dealer and that Vannockay went to other dealers only if Ranson
was not around. Vannockay would come to see Caldwell and Ranson almost “every day” and loaned
out his vehicle “five or ten times a month.” Id. at 44. Ranson’s estimates were more modest. He
sold to Vannockay only “five times” in a two-year span and borrowed the car on “three or four”
occasions. Id. at 54–55. When asked to identify the cars he and Ranson had borrowed from
Case: 07-6123 Document: 006110929868 Filed: 04/18/2011 Page: 5
United States v. Ranson
Vannockay in the past, Caldwell listed a burgundy Ford Escort, a burgundy Ford Ranger and a red
Ford Mustang that supposedly belonged to Vannockay’s twenty-four-year-old daughter. Yet other
evidence failed to show that Vannockay owned any such cars and suggested only that he had a sevenyear-old daughter. The district court also found that Ranson’s flight from police “suggests a
consciousness of guilt that goes beyond mere possession of the firearm. And it strongly suggests the
possibility that this vehicle was stolen and that Mr. Ranson knew it was stolen because he had stolen
it himself.” Id. at 81.
The district court, to be sure, faced a difficult task in sifting through the competing stories,
but it is precisely this kind of “ring-side credibility determination that no appellate court can fairly
make on the basis of a non-sentient record.” United States v. Kimbrel, 532 F.3d 461, 468 (6th Cir.
2008). Because ample evidence supports the district court’s credibility finding, we affirm.
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