18 F.3d 1166 (4th Cir. 1994), 92-5639, United States v. Chase

Docket Nº:92-5639.
Citation:18 F.3d 1166
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Michael Clifton CHASE, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:March 04, 1994
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

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18 F.3d 1166 (4th Cir. 1994)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,


Michael Clifton CHASE, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 92-5639.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

March 4, 1994

Argued Oct. 27, 1993.

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ARGUED: Michael P. O'Connell, Federal Public Defender, Charleston, South Carolina; John P. Bowler, JOHN P. BOWLER & ASSOCIATES, P.A., North Charleston, South Carolina, for appellant. Albert Peter Shahid, Jr., Assistant United States Attorney, Benjamin A. Hagood, Jr., Assistant United States Attorney, Charleston, South Carolina, for appellee. ON BRIEF: Margaret B. Seymour, United States Attorney, Charleston, South Carolina, for appellee.

Before WIDENER and WILKINS, Circuit Judges, and SPROUSE, Senior Circuit Judge.


SPROUSE, Senior Circuit Judge:

This appeal from a conviction of first degree murder committed on a United States military reservation involves the determination of whether a homicide conviction can be sustained if the victim initially survived an assault, lived for nearly seventeen years, but eventually died as a result of injuries suffered in the attack. In particular, we must decide the continuing vitality of the federal common law rule barring indictment and trial of a defendant for murder when the victim's death occurred more than a year and a day after the fatal attack was perpetrated. Other issues raised by the appellant are not critical to our decision.


On the morning of May 15, 1973, Janet Willey's husband left their home, which was in the base housing area of a United States military compound near Beaufort, South Carolina. Later that morning, Willey's four year old son found his mother unconscious and bleeding from the head. A hammer with blood stains was found in an adjoining room. There were no eyewitnesses to the assault,

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but six sets of fingerprints were found in the home. Willey did not immediately die as a result of the hammer wounds. In fact, she survived for nearly seventeen years. In the years after the attack, however, she had considerable difficulty communicating and suffered from epileptic seizures.

On February 14, 1974, Willey and her husband met with an FBI agent to discuss the crime. Through gestures and with the aid of her husband as an "interpreter," Willey described how, on the day of her attack, two young boys came to her house after her husband had left. One of the young boys departed, and Willey asked the other to leave as well. She went to the bathroom and, upon returning, encountered the older boy leaving the bedroom where the bloody hammer was later found. The FBI later determined that there had been twenty-two white school boys absent or late from the local school on the day of the attack. The United States Attorney's Office refused to allow fingerprinting of all the absent children, and the investigation was closed.

In June of 1982, Michael Clifton Chase, the appellant here, was in prison in Oklahoma on an armed robbery conviction. He was serving his sentence in the protective custody unit because he had disclosed information that had led to a shakedown at that prison. Supposedly in fear for his life, Chase contacted the FBI and confessed to killing a woman in a military housing area near Beaufort, South Carolina. Chase sought to be transferred out of the Oklahoma prison in exchange for this confession. Chase's confession matched the known facts of Willey's attack in a number of ways:

The location was the same, and the dates were within three months of each other.

Chase described watching, from an open field, a man leaving a house at the base. There was an open field near the Willeys' house.

Chase said he entered the house through the front door. Fingerprints on that door matched Chase's.

Chase correctly described the layout of the Willeys' house and the color scheme in Janet Willey's bedroom.

Chase said he hit a 35- to 40-year old woman on the left side of the head while she was sleeping. Willey was 39 and was found lying in bed after the attack.

The United States declined to prosecute the matter even after Chase offered to waive any expired statute of limitations for assault.

Seven and one-half years after the alleged confession and over sixteen years after the 1973 assault, Willey was found dead in her Florida home on January 17, 1990. She had evidently died some time earlier, for her brain was in an autolytic state and was not susceptible to examination at autopsy. A medical examiner investigated Willey's medical history and concluded that she had died of an epileptic seizure which had been caused by the 1973 blow to her head. On April 10, 1991, Chase was indicted for first degree murder. He was then tried and convicted by a jury in January 1992.

Chase was sentenced to life imprisonment. The district court held that the sentencing guidelines were inapplicable because the crime was committed on the day on which the blows were administered, not the date of death, and the attack occurred before the sentencing guidelines were in effect. Chase appeals his conviction. The government initially appealed the district court's determination as to the applicability of the sentencing guidelines but later withdrew that appeal.

Chase contends that his indictment and trial were barred by the year and a day rule and the statute of limitations, 1 that his Fifth Amendment right of due process of law was violated by the government's delay in bringing him to trial, and that the trial court committed reversible error by not granting him a new trial when it was discovered that jurors considered information coming into their possession from outside the trial proceeding. 2 We only consider Chase's argument

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that his prosecution is barred by the year and a day rule. In Ball v. United States, 140 U.S. 118, 133, 11 S.Ct. 761, 766, 35 L.Ed. 377 (1891) ("Ball I "), the United States Supreme Court recognized that the common law's ancient year and a day rule is applicable to federal prosecutions for murder. Over one hundred years have passed without legislation or a Supreme Court holding overruling Ball I, so we are constrained to apply it here and reverse Chase's conviction.


In Ball I, the Supreme Court was confronted with an appeal of convictions in a murder case in which three defendants had been charged with shooting and killing a man in the Chickasaw Nation Indian Territory on June 26, 1889. 3 The victim was shot ten times, but the indictment failed to allege either the time or place of death. Although the trial was held less than one year after the shooting, the Supreme Court quashed the indictment as insufficient and fatally defective. In reaching that decision, the Supreme Court said:

The indictment charges an assault by the defendant upon one William T. Box with a loaded gun, with the infliction of mortal wounds by the discharge of its contents, "of which mortal wounds the said William T. Box did languish, and languishing died." This fails to aver either the time or place of the death. By the common law, both time and place were required to be alleged. It was necessary that it should appear that the death transpired within a year and a day after the stroke, and the place of death equally with that of the stroke had to be stated, to show jurisdiction in...

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