483 F.3d 313 (5th Cir. 2007), 04-50393, United States v. Fields

Docket Nº:04-50393.
Citation:483 F.3d 313
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Sherman Lamont FIELDS, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:March 29, 2007
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

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483 F.3d 313 (5th Cir. 2007)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,


Sherman Lamont FIELDS, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 04-50393.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit.

March 29, 2007

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Joseph H. Gay, Jr., Asst. U.S. Atty., San Antonio, TX, Steven L. Lane (argued), U.S. Dept. of Justice, Crim, Div., Washington, DC, for U.S.

Robert Charles Owen (argued), Owen & Rountree, Austin, TX, for Fields.

David William DeBruin, Jenner & Block, Washington, DC, for Amicus Curiae.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas.

Before KING, SMITH and BENAVIDES, Circuit Judges.

BENAVIDES, Circuit Judge, writing for the Court except as to Parts II.A.1-3. JERRY E. SMITH, Circuit Judge, writing for the Court in Parts II.A.1-3 1.

This is a direct appeal in a federal death penalty case. Sherman Fields challenges his seven convictions and his death sentence, claiming more than twenty different errors. For the reasons below, we reject all of Fields's claims of error and, accordingly, affirm his convictions and sentences.


The evidence presented at trial reveals the following: Fields was arrested on federal firearms charges in September 2001. He was held in federal custody at the McClennan County Detention Center in Waco, Texas. In November 2001, Fields bribed a correctional officer--paying him $5000 in exchange for a key to the detention center's fire escape door. Using the key, Fields escaped.

After fleeing federal custody, Fields met up with a friend. Through this friend, Fields obtained a car and a .32 caliber revolver. That evening, Fields visited his ex-girlfriend, Suncerey Coleman, at Hillcrest Hospital in Waco, where she was attending to her newborn baby. Fields was angry with Coleman for seeing other men. After Fields and Coleman conversed for some time, Fields convinced her to leave the hospital with him. They drove to Downsville, Texas, a small town just outside of Waco. The two had sexual intercourse, 2 and then Fields shot Coleman

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twice in the head. After that, he dragged her dead body from the road into some underbrush to hide it.

Several days later, Fields approached a Hillcrest Hospital employee, Tammy Edwards, while Edwards was exiting her car. Brandishing a handgun and grabbing her by the throat, Fields demanded that Edwards get back in the car. Although Edwards was able to struggle free, Fields managed to wrestle away her car keys. Fields drove away in Edwards's car.

Coleman's body was found on November 21, more than two weeks after her death. Three days later, police rearrested Fields. The Government charged Fields by a seven-count indictment with (1) conspiring to escape from federal custody, (2) escaping from federal custody, (3) using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to escape, resulting in intentional murder, (4) carjacking, (5) using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to carjacking, (6) felon in possession of a firearm, (7) using and carrying a Ruger .22 caliber firearm during and in relation to escape.

At trial, Fields asked to represent himself. The district court advised against such a course of action. After Fields insisted, the court instructed his two previously-appointed attorneys to act as standby counsel. Following several days of evidence, the jury convicted Fields on all counts.

The Government sought a death sentence on the murder count pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 924(j)(1). 3 At his separate trial on sentencing, 4 Fields waived his right to proceed pro se and was represented by counsel. Fields objected on Confrontation Clause grounds to the admission of certain out-of-court statements to establish that Fields committed prior violent crimes. After hearing additional evidence, the jury recommended the death penalty. Following this recommendation, the court sentenced Fields to death. Fields appealed, challenging his convictions and his death sentence.


While Fields raises a variety of potential trial errors, his more substantial claims concern the sentencing phase of trial. At the expense of a chronological account of the trial proceedings, we begin by addressing the sentencing issues before turning to the potential trial errors.



Fields maintains that the district court erred by admitting testimonial hearsay at his capital sentencing proceeding in violation of Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 124 S.Ct. 1354, 158 L.Ed.2d 177 (2004). Fields preserved this purely legal claim of error at sentencing, so our review is de novo.

a. The Nature of the Confrontation Clause Challenge

Fields challenges, on the basis of the Confrontation Clause, the introduction at sentencing of several hearsay statements of five types: (1) statements made about him by his mother and juvenile probation officers in various records introduced

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into evidence by a Juvenile Probation Department official; (2) statements made about him by corrections officers in prison records introduced into evidence by state prison officials; (3) statements made by officers in police reports introduced into evidence by someone other than the officer who had made the report; (4) a detective's description, based on the investigating officer's report, of the drive-by shooting that led to Fields's 1992 conviction of attempted murder; and (5) statements made by witnesses to police officers while the officers were investigating various past crimes in which Fields may have been involved but for which he was never charged (the statements being described in the officers' testimony).

None of the challenged statements was presented as part of the government's effort to establish the statutory aggravating factors that trigger death-eligibility under the Federal Death Penalty Act ("FDPA"). See 18 U.S.C. § 3592(c). Indeed, the statements are not in any way relevant to the eligibility-triggering factors included in the government's Notice of Intent To Seek a Sentence of Death. Those factors are (1) that Coleman's death occurred during Fields's commission of (or immediate flight from the commission of) an escape in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 751; (2) that Fields had been convicted of a federal or state offense punishable by imprisonment for more than one year, involving the use, attempted use, or threatened use of a firearm; and (3) that he had committed the offense after substantial planning and preparation to cause the death of another. 5 Rather, all of the challenged statements were introduced as part of the government's effort to establish Fields's past violent conduct and future dangerousness, both of which are nonstatutory aggravating factors that were included in the government's notice. 6

The establishment of nonstatutory aggravating factors is neither necessary nor sufficient to authorize imposition of the death penalty. Nonstatutory aggravating factors may be considered by the jury in selecting an appropriate sentence once a defendant is found eligible for the death penalty, but they are not, and cannot be, used to determine that eligibility, as the Supreme Court has explained:

[S]tatutory aggravating circumstances play a constitutionally necessary function at the stage of legislative definition: they circumscribe the class of persons eligible for the death penalty. But the Constitution does not require the jury to ignore other possible aggravating factors in the process of selecting, from among that class, those defendants who will actually be sentenced to death.

Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 878, 103 S.Ct. 2733, 77 L.Ed.2d 235 (1983).

Because they relate only to nonstatutory aggravating factors, the hearsay statements challenged by Fields are relevant only to the jury's selection of an appropriate punishment from within an authorized range and not to the establishment of his eligibility for the death penalty. After reviewing the applicable caselaw and considering the particular importance of "individualized

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sentencing" in capital cases, we conclude that the Confrontation Clause does not operate to bar the admission of testimony relevant only to a capital sentencing authority's selection decision. 7

b. Constitutional Rights at Capital Sentencing: Williams v. New York

Constitutional rights traditionally have been more circumscribed at sentencing, even capital sentencing, than during the guilt phase. In Williams v. New York, 337 U.S. 241, 69 S.Ct. 1079, 93 L.Ed. 1337 (1949), a state judge sentenced a defendant to death on the basis of information obtained pursuant to a statutory presentence investigation and relayed to the judge outside the courtroom. At the sentencing hearing, the judge explained why he believed the death penalty was appropriate:

[The judge] stated that the pre-sentence investigation revealed many material facts concerning appellant's background which though relevant to the question of punishment could not properly have been brought to the attention of the jury in its consideration of the question of guilt. He referred to the experience appellant "had had on thirty other burglaries in and about the same vicinity" where the murder had been committed. The appellant had not been convicted of these burglaries although the judge had information that he had confessed to some and had been identified...

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