U.S. v. Harris, No. 03-51147.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtDeMoss
Citation420 F.3d 467
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Travis James HARRIS, Defendant-Appellant.
Docket NumberNo. 03-51147.
Decision Date08 August 2005

Page 467

420 F.3d 467
UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Travis James HARRIS, Defendant-Appellant.
No. 03-51147.
United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit.
August 8, 2005.

Joseph H. Gay, Jr., Asst. U.S. Atty., Angela S. Raba (argued), San Antonio, TX, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Alexander Lee Calhoun (argued), Law Office of Alex Calhoun, Austin, TX, for Defendant-Appellant.

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

Before REAVLEY, HIGGINBOTHAM and DeMOSS, Circuit Judges.

DeMOSS, Circuit Judge:


A jury found Defendant-Appellant Travis James Harris guilty of carjacking, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2119, and use of a firearm during a crime of violence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1) and (j). Harris directly appeals his convictions, arguing that the evidence is insufficient to sustain

Page 468

the carjacking conviction and that the district court erred in dismissing a juror and in instructing the jury. We hold that the evidence presented to the jury was insufficient to sustain the carjacking conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 2119. Therefore, we REVERSE Harris's convictions and VACATE his sentence.

Factual and Procedural Background

Harris admits by his own testimony to shooting Paul John Ceniceros. The Government and Harris disagree about the circumstances surrounding the shooting. While both agree that Harris committed homicide, the parties dispute whether the Government succeeded at trial in proving a carjacking under 18 U.S.C. § 2119 (2003). The Government argues Harris killed Ceniceros in connection with Harris's taking of Ceniceros's car, a 1996 red Ford Mustang, and that the connection is sufficient to make the crime a carjacking under the statute's language. Harris testified that he killed Ceniceros in self-defense, and Harris characterizes his theft of the automobile as a larcenous afterthought. It is undisputed that the two rode in Ceniceros's car together for some time on the late night or early morning of Ceniceros's death and that the two arrived in the car together at a secluded location where, outside of the car, Harris shot and killed Ceniceros. Harris claims he drove Ceniceros's car away to escape from a deserted area and detection. Harris argues this series of events, even according to the Government's evidence and reasonable inferences therefrom, constitutes only manslaughter and larceny, not a carjacking.

Ceniceros was last seen alive on May 24, 2002, leaving his home in Odessa around 11:45 p.m. As of that time, Ceniceros had told his family he would return shortly, made plans to meet his best friend at a club, and told another friend, Elizabeth Kamali, he would meet her at her house for a barbeque. Later in the evening of May 24 and the early morning hours of May 25, Ceniceros made several phone calls from his mobile phone to friends, the last of which was made at 4:14 a.m. on May 25 to Kamali, who told Ceniceros he could let himself into her house to spend the night and she would leave blankets and food for him. Ceniceros never arrived at Kamali's home.

An oil field worker found Ceniceros's body on July 17, approximately 53 days after Ceniceros disappeared, in an oil field approximately 20 miles outside of Odessa, Texas. When found, Ceniceros's body was partially covered by thick mesquite brush and was partially clothed, although it was determined that he was clothed at the time of his death. Ten shell casings, ejected from a 9-mm automatic handgun, were found approximately 23 to 30 feet from Ceniceros's body, in a pattern which would be consistent with the fact that the shooter had been moving while firing. A gun, which was connected by expert testimony to the bullet slugs recovered from Ceniceros's body, was later found on a road outside Seminole, Texas.

A trace on the gun revealed it had been stolen, about two months before May 24, from its original owner's vehicle in Odessa. No evidence traced the gun from its owner to Harris, but the Government presented evidence related to Harris's possession of a handgun. One witness testified that he saw Harris handling a black handgun in May 2002 at Harris's home and that he saw Harris with the gun on approximately five occasions within one month. The same witness testified that Harris claimed the firearm was a 9-mm handgun; and at trial, the witness identified the gun that killed Ceniceros as the weapon he saw Harris handling. Witness testimony established that friends of Ceniceros had

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never seen him with a gun or known him to possess one.

On May 27, 2002, Harris telephoned a friend in Andrews, Texas, to ask her for a ride from Lubbock back to his apartment in Odessa. Harris explained his car had broken down in Lubbock and left him stranded. Friends picked Harris up at the Albertson's in Lubbock that afternoon. He was carrying a black duffle bag at the time. On the way back to Odessa, the group stopped in Seminole, Texas, for food; and at some point on the ride, Harris explained that he had been in Lubbock for two days, sleeping in his red Mustang, while trying to repair the car. Harris was dropped off at his apartment building in Odessa on the evening of May 27.

On June 5, 2002, acting upon their investigation into Ceniceros's disappearance, law enforcement officers effected a search warrant on Harris's white Ford Bronco parked outside his Odessa apartment. There, police discovered a black duffle bag containing clothes, keys later determined to be those for Ceniceros's red Mustang, Ceniceros's mobile telephone, a receipt pad matching that used by Ceniceros in his job as a waiter, a 9-mm cartridge, and latex gloves. Ceniceros's red Mustang was discovered in an Albertson's parking lot in Lubbock on June 14, 2002, without signs of forced entry. The Mustang was disabled due to a defective belt. Inside the car and under the seat, police found Ceniceros's wallet. Under the car, brush, like that found in an oil field, was lodged. Later inspection revealed no physical damage to the interior of the Mustang, and no bullet holes, blood, or semen in or on the car; but expert serology testimony identified DNA evidence found on the top half of the steering wheel of the car as consistent with Harris's own DNA from a blood sample.

During the federal investigation into Ceniceros's disappearance, an FBI agent met with Harris three times. In one interview, Harris claimed he was picked up by a man named Nick, driving a Ford Mustang; the two had car problems after some driving; and finally Nick gave Harris the keys to the car and his cell phone and instructed Harris to drive the car to Lubbock. When shown a photo of Ceniceros, Harris stated the likeness was not Nick's. Harris denied owning a handgun.

On June 16, 2002, a witness led police to a trash dumpster behind an apartment building in Monahans, Texas, located across the street from the home of Harris's father. There, that same day, the witness had found several unfired 9-mm bullets on the ground and placed them in the trash. The police recovered the bullets from the dumpster and identified them as having the same three manufacturers as the shell casings that were found near Ceniceros's body in the oil field.

At trial, Harris testified that on the night of May 24, 2002, his father kicked him out of the car and left him on the side of a highway near Monahans. Harris explained that Ceniceros, who was a single homosexual approximately 28 years old, picked him up along the road about midnight and that together they rode around, talking in a friendly manner, drinking beer into the early morning hours. Harris claimed that at some point, while still dark during the early morning hours, they parked in a secluded area and Ceniceros began asking Harris suggestive questions. Harris testified that he responded by requesting Ceniceros take him back to town and then Harris exited the car and started to walk away. Ceniceros followed, according to Harris, and pointed a handgun at Harris, which Harris identified as the gun admitted into evidence. Harris testified he then, at Ceniceros's demand, got back

Page 470

into the car. Harris claimed Ceniceros demanded Harris let Ceniceros perform oral sex on Harris and later that Ceniceros demanded Harris perform oral sex on Ceniceros. Harris testified that, after Harris repeatedly objected and asked to be taken back into town, Harris acquiesced to Ceniceros's demands for oral sex and then grabbed the gun from Ceniceros. Harris claimed he ran down the road pursued by Ceniceros and that only then did Harris shoot Ceniceros in self-defense. Harris determined Ceniceros was dead, covered the body in sticks, found the car keys, and drove back to his father's house in Monahans before proceeding north towards his mother's home in Missouri. Harris testified that the Mustang broke down in Lubbock, and, at some point on the way there, he tossed the gun out of the car. Harris claimed that he removed bullets from the back of Ceniceros's car, and dumped them later in an alley in Monahans.

The record is void of any evidence, aside from Harris's own testimony at trial, regarding how Harris and Ceniceros got into the Mustang together or arrived at the remote oil field where Ceniceros's body was found. Indeed, the record lacks any evidence relating to the moment Harris demanded or took control of the vehicle.

At the close of the Government's case, Harris's Rule 29 motion for instructed verdict based upon insufficient evidence was denied. Harris renewed his motion at the close of all evidence, and it was again denied. On June 25, 2003, the jury: (1) convicted Harris of carjacking under 18 U.S.C. § 2119; (2) convicted Harris of use of a firearm during a crime of violence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1) and (j); and (3) found by special verdict that Harris's killing of Ceniceros constituted voluntary manslaughter. Harris now challenges his convictions.

Discussion

Harris argues that: (1) there was insufficient...

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27 practice notes
  • USA v. Tiran Rodez Casteel, No. 1:08-cr-00053.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. United States State District Court of Southern District of Iowa
    • July 7, 2010
    ...Third, Defendants compare this case to both United States v. Applewhaite, 195 F.3d 679 (3d Cir.1999), and United States v. Harris, 420 F.3d 467 (5th Cir.2005), and claim an insufficient nexus exists between the robbers' intent and the theft of Eitzen's car. Tiran Casteel's Br. at 14-15. Fin......
  • United States v. Felder, No. 19-897-cr
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • March 31, 2021
    ...the car" or "unnecessary to steal the car." Holloway v. United States , 526 U.S. at 12, 119 S.Ct. 966.As for United States v. Harris , 420 F.3d 467 (5th Cir. 2005), the Fifth Circuit there reversed a § 2119 conviction for insufficient evidence that a defendant intended to kill or seriously ......
  • United States v. Taylor, No. 09–5517.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • February 11, 2016
    ...or used force to take the victim's van. Id. at 686. The victim was dead when the van was taken. Similarly, in United States v. Harris, 420 F.3d 467 (5th Cir.2005), it was uncontested that the defendant killed the victim and took the victim's vehicle, but there was insufficient evidence to s......
  • U.S. v. Foster, No. 04-4618.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
    • November 13, 2007
    ...car, he possessed the intent to seriously harm or kill Rhodes if necessary to obtain control of the car. Cf. United States v. Harris, 420 F.3d 467, 474-78 (5th Cir.2005) (carjacking conviction could not stand where evidence did not establish that force was the means of stealing the car); Un......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
27 cases
  • USA v. Tiran Rodez Casteel, No. 1:08-cr-00053.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. United States State District Court of Southern District of Iowa
    • July 7, 2010
    ...Third, Defendants compare this case to both United States v. Applewhaite, 195 F.3d 679 (3d Cir.1999), and United States v. Harris, 420 F.3d 467 (5th Cir.2005), and claim an insufficient nexus exists between the robbers' intent and the theft of Eitzen's car. Tiran Casteel's Br. at 14-15. Fin......
  • United States v. Felder, No. 19-897-cr
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • March 31, 2021
    ...the car" or "unnecessary to steal the car." Holloway v. United States , 526 U.S. at 12, 119 S.Ct. 966.As for United States v. Harris , 420 F.3d 467 (5th Cir. 2005), the Fifth Circuit there reversed a § 2119 conviction for insufficient evidence that a defendant intended to kill or seriously ......
  • United States v. Taylor, No. 09–5517.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • February 11, 2016
    ...or used force to take the victim's van. Id. at 686. The victim was dead when the van was taken. Similarly, in United States v. Harris, 420 F.3d 467 (5th Cir.2005), it was uncontested that the defendant killed the victim and took the victim's vehicle, but there was insufficient evidence to s......
  • U.S. v. Foster, No. 04-4618.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
    • November 13, 2007
    ...car, he possessed the intent to seriously harm or kill Rhodes if necessary to obtain control of the car. Cf. United States v. Harris, 420 F.3d 467, 474-78 (5th Cir.2005) (carjacking conviction could not stand where evidence did not establish that force was the means of stealing the car); Un......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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