800 F.3d 570 (D.C. Cir. 2015), 11-3054, United States v. Straker

Docket Nº:11-3054, 11-3055, 11-3056, 11-3057, 11-3058, 11-3059, 11-3061, 11-5124
Citation:800 F.3d 570
Opinion Judge:Per Curiam
Party Name:UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, APPELLEE v. ANDERSON STRAKER, ALSO KNOWN AS GYPSY'S SON, ALSO KNOWN AS ANDY, APPELLANT; ZION CLARKE, ET AL., APPELLANTS v. LORETTA E. LYNCH, ATTORNEY GENERAL, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE AND VINCENT H. COHEN JR., ACTING UNITED STATES ATTORNEY FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLEES
Attorney:Victoria Killion, Charles B. Wayne, Andrew M. Treaster, Jonathan S. Zucker, Paul S. Rosenzweig, Steven R. Kiersh, and Andrew Macurdy, appointed by the court, argued the causes for appellants. With them on the briefs were Justin S. Antonipillai, Leeann R. Morentz, Jeffrey B. O'Toole, Christopher S...
Judge Panel:Before: TATEL, MILLETT and PILLARD, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:September 01, 2015
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
 
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Page 570

800 F.3d 570 (D.C. Cir. 2015)

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, APPELLEE

v.

ANDERSON STRAKER, ALSO KNOWN AS GYPSY'S SON, ALSO KNOWN AS ANDY, APPELLANT;

ZION CLARKE, ET AL., APPELLANTS

v.

LORETTA E. LYNCH, ATTORNEY GENERAL, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE AND VINCENT H. COHEN JR., ACTING UNITED STATES ATTORNEY FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLEES

Nos. 11-3054, 11-3055, 11-3056, 11-3057, 11-3058, 11-3059, 11-3061, 11-5124

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

September 1, 2015

Argued September 4, 2014

Petition for certiorari filed at, 11/25/2015

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Appeals from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. (Nos. 1:06-cr-00102, 1:09-cv-00753).

Victoria Killion, Charles B. Wayne, Andrew M. Treaster, Jonathan S. Zucker, Paul S. Rosenzweig, Steven R. Kiersh, and Andrew Macurdy, appointed by the court, argued the causes for appellants. With them on the briefs were Justin S. Antonipillai, Leeann R. Morentz, Jeffrey B. O'Toole, Christopher S. Rhee, Jocelyn A. Wiesner, and Pleasant S. Brodnax III, appointed by the court. Lisa S. Blatt entered an appearance.

David B. Goodhand and W. Mark Nebeker, Assistant U.S. Attorneys, argued the causes for appellees. With them on the brief were Ronald C. Machen Jr., U.S. Attorney, Bruce R. Hegyi, Trial Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, and R. Craig Lawrence, Elizabeth Trosman, and Elizabeth H. Danello, Assistant U.S. Attorneys.

Before: TATEL, MILLETT and PILLARD, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

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Per Curiam

The Hostage Taking Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1203, prescribes criminal penalties for foreign nationals who abduct American citizens. In this case, nationals of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago abducted wealthy individuals, held them captive in the island's mountainous forests, and extorted ransoms from terrified family and friends. The scheme proved quite profitable--at least until they kidnapped an American citizen and ran headlong into the Hostage Taking Act. The conspirators were extradited to the United States, tried, and convicted of violating the Act. But does that statute apply if, as defendants allege, the victim secured his United States citizenship through fraud? The district court held that it does, and for the reasons set forth in this opinion, we agree. Rejecting all of the conspirators' other challenges, we affirm their convictions in all respects.

I.

By early 2005, defendants Wayne Pierre, Ricardo De Four, and Zion Clarke had perfected their hostage-taking protocol and regularly extorted six-figure ransoms (Trinidadian dollars). Looking to up the ante, the three enlarged their organization to include defendants Kevon Demerieux, Kevin Nixon, Christopher Sealey, and Anderson Straker, and set their sights on Trinidad-native Balram Maharaj, whom they believed had amassed a fortune in the United States. Although naturalized as an American citizen in 1995, Maharaj frequently visited his children in Trinidad. Defendants, assisted by a host of unindicted co-conspirators, planned to abduct Maharaj during one of those visits.

On the night of April 6, 2005, defendants executed their plan. Sealey and Nixon, armed with handguns, dragged Maharaj from Samaan Tree Bar in Aranguez, Trinidad and forced him into a getaway car while De Four drove ahead in a separate vehicle to clear the way. Sealey and Nixon delivered Maharaj to an isolated camp deep within the forest where Clarke and Demerieux guarded him. A nightmare ensued.

The two guards tied Maharaj to a post and gave him little food and water. Suffering from severe diabetes, hypertension, and tuberculosis, Maharaj pleaded for medication. Clarke and Demerieux ignored his pleas while their co-conspirator, Winston Gittens, used Maharaj's worsening health as leverage to demand three million Trinidadian dollars from his family. Bound and gagged, Maharaj repeatedly refused defendants' attempts to record a " proof of life" video, even when Straker threatened to harm Maharaj's son. After six days in captivity, Maharaj slipped into a diabetic coma and died.

Well aware that they had killed a United States citizen, defendants voted to conceal their crime. " No body, no evidence, no case," proclaimed Pierre. Using a machete and their bare hands, Clarke, Demerieux, and Pierre removed Maharaj's internal

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organs and dismembered his body. They packed the remains in Styrofoam containers and buried them in the woods. As with most buried secrets, however, defendants' misdeeds eventually surfaced.

In late 2005, the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service began an investigation of defendants' hostage-taking ring. Assisted by the FBI, Trinidadian police ultimately uncovered evidence of Maharaj's death. The United States extradited defendants and charged them with conspiracy and hostage-taking resulting in death in violation of the Hostage Taking Act. The facts and circumstances surrounding the kidnapping are largely undisputed--indeed, five of the seven defendants confessed. Defendants primarily argue that Maharaj misrepresented key facts on his immigration applications, thus negating his United States citizenship--an essential element of a Hostage Taking Act prosecution. The district court rejected this argument, as well as numerous other objections. After a ten-week trial, the jury convicted defendants of all charges, and the district court sentenced them to life imprisonment without the possibility of release.

Defendants now appeal their convictions on numerous grounds. We address the arguments pertaining to Maharaj's citizenship in Part II and then consider defendants' other arguments in Parts III through XI.

II.

Enacted to fulfill the United States' obligations under the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages, the Hostage Taking Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1203, makes extraterritorial hostage-taking a criminal offense when the victim is a United States national. On appeal, it is undisputed that at the time of his death Balram Maharaj possessed an authentic certificate of naturalization.

Before trial, however, defendants uncovered evidence they claim demonstrates that Maharaj obtained his naturalization through fraud. According to this evidence, Maharaj, formerly Aladdin Barlow John, first entered the United States in 1967 as a non-immigrant transit en route to Canada. Following a short visit there, Maharaj returned to the United States, briefly settling in New York before enlisting in the Army in 1968. He deserted seven months later. In order to avoid prosecution for desertion, Maharaj completed a clemency program and was ultimately discharged from the Army as undesirable.

In April 1986, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), having discovered that Maharaj had overstayed his 1967 transitory permit, ordered him to leave the United States. But instead of leaving, he petitioned INS for permanent-resident alien status, also known as a green card. Asked on his green card application whether he had ever been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude, Maharaj checked " no" even though, defendants claim, he had once pleaded guilty to petty larceny and was on probation. Maharaj also checked " no" when asked whether he had ever suffered an " attack of insanity," narcotic drug addiction, or chronic alcoholism, even though his ex-wife would years later attest in an unrelated proceeding that he had previously spent time in a mental-health facility, attempted suicide, and chronically abused alcohol and prescription drugs. INS granted Maharaj's petition.

After maintaining permanent-resident status for five years, Maharaj applied for full naturalization in 1994. On the application, Maharaj checked " no" when asked whether he had ever been ordered deported. And when asked whether he had ever knowingly committed a crime for which he

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had not been arrested, he checked " no" even though his ex-wife had testified that he once physically assaulted and raped her. INS granted Maharaj citizenship in 1995.

The question whether Maharaj's misrepresentations negated his citizenship and, in turn, defendants' guilt, was the most contested issue throughout the proceedings in the district court. Defendants first raised the issue in a motion to dismiss the indictment, arguing that because conviction under the Hostage Taking Act requires U.S. citizenship and because Maharaj's fraud negated his citizenship, the district court lacked jurisdiction. The district court disagreed. Citing a long and unbroken line of Supreme Court precedent, see, e.g., United States v. Zucca, 351 U.S. 91, 95, 76 S.Ct. 671, 100 L.Ed. 964 & n.8 (1956); see also Bindczyck v. Finucane, 342 U.S. 76, 83, 72 S.Ct. 130, 96 L.Ed. 100 (1951), the district court held that 8 U.S.C. § 1451, which permits the United States Attorney to institute denaturalization proceedings in a federal district court, is the exclusive procedure for voiding the citizenship of a person naturalized due to fraud. United States v. Clarke, 628 F.Supp.2d 1, 9 (D.D.C. 2009). Citizenship, the court held, remains valid until a district court, acting upon a United States Attorney's section 1451 motion, determines that naturalization was " procured by concealment of a material fact or fraud." Id. at 6 (quoting 8 U.S.C. § 1451(a)). Given that no district court had ever made such a finding as to Maharaj, the court denied the motion. Clark...

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