U.S. v. Soto-Beniquez

Citation356 F.3d 1
Decision Date20 November 2003
Docket NumberNo. 00-1543.,No. 00-1470.,No. 01-1619.,No. 01-1620.,No. 00-1362.,No. 00-1464.,No. 01-1674.,No. 00-1488.,No. 00-1547.,01-1619.,01-1674.,00-1547.,01-1620.,00-1464.,00-1488.,00-1470.,00-1362.,00-1543.
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Appellee, v. William SOTO-BENÍQUEZ, Defendant, Appellant. United States of America, Appellee, v. Juan Soto-Ramírez, Defendant, Appellant. United States of America, Appellee, v. Eduardo Alicea-Torres, Defendant, Appellant. United States of America, Appellee, v. Ramon Fernández-Malavé, Defendant, Appellant. United States of America, Appellee, v. Carmelo Vega-Pacheco, Defendant, Appellant. United States of America, Appellee, v. Armando García-García, Defendant, Appellant. United States of America, Appellee, v. Jose Luis De León Maysonet, Defendant, Appellant. United States of America, Appellee, v. Rene Gonzalez-Ayala, Defendant, Appellant. United States of America, Appellee, v. Juan Enrique Cintrón-Caraballo, Defendant, Appellant. United States of America, Appellee, v. Miguel Vega-Colón, Defendant, Appellant. United States of America, Appellee, v. Miguel Vega-Cosme, Defendant, Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, Daniel R. Dominguez, J.












Marlene Apontes-Cabrera for appellant Soto-Beníquez.

Miriam Ramos-Grateroles for appellant Soto-Ramírez.

Raymond Rivera Esteves for appellant Alicea-Torres.

Luz M. Rios-Rosario for appellant Fernández-Malavé.

Javier Morales-Ramos for appellant Vega-Pacheco.

Rachel Brill for appellant García-García.

Roberto Roldan-Burgos for appellant de León Maysonet.

Victor Miranda-Corrada for appellant Gonzalez-Ayala.

Rafael Anglada-Lopez for appellant Cintrón-Caraballo.

Marcia G. Shein for appellants Vega-Cosme and Vega-Colón.

Jacabed Rodriguez-Coss and Michelle Morales, Assistant United States Attorneys, with whom H.S. Garcia, United States Attorney, and Sonia I. Torres-Pabon, Assistant United States Attorney, were on brief, for appellee.

Before SELYA, Circuit Judge, COFFIN, Senior Circuit Judge, and LYNCH, Circuit Judge.

LYNCH, Circuit Judge.

This massive drug conspiracy case from Puerto Rico involved a six-month trial and resulted in convictions of the eleven defendants who appeal, eight of whom received life sentences and three of whom received sentences of more than twenty years.

The government charged this case as involving one overarching conspiracy from January 1990 to March 1994 to distribute drugs at Bitumul (Israel Ward) in Hato Rey, San Juan, Puerto Rico and to protect that distribution through multiple murders. Twenty-two defendants were indicted on charges of conspiracy with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine, more than five kilograms of cocaine base, more than five kilograms of heroin, and more than 100 kilograms of marijuana over a four-year period, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). Two of these defendants, William Soto-Beníquez and Juan Soto-Ramírez (a/k/a Pipo), were also charged with violating the Continuing Criminal Enterprise (CCE) statute, 21 U.S.C. § 848(a) and (b). The government alleged that Soto-Ramírez headed the conspiracy and that Soto-Beníquez was the triggerman and principal supplier. The remaining nine appellants were charged with playing various roles in distributing drugs or protecting the distribution of drugs.

The original twenty-two defendants were separated into two groups. The first group of eleven, comprised of those who the government said were more major players in the conspiracy, were tried before a jury from December 28, 1998 to June 25, 1999. The jury convicted all eleven defendants on all counts with which they were charged.

The two CCE defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment on Count One, the CCE count, while Count Two, the conspiracy count, was dismissed as to them under the rule of Rutledge v. United States, 517 U.S. 292, 116 S.Ct. 1241, 134 L.Ed.2d 419 (1996). Six other defendants were also sentenced to life imprisonment: Alicea-Torres, Fernández-Malavé, Vega-Pacheco, García-García, Vega-Cosme, and Cintrón-Caraballo. The remaining three — Vega-Colón, Gonzalez-Ayala, and de León Maysonet — were each sentenced to 292 months of imprisonment.

These appeals present three substantial issues: a multiple conspiracy issue, an issue of improper argument by the government in its rebuttal closing argument, and a set of Apprendi sentencing issues. Defendants' key theme on appeal is that the government overcharged the conspiracy in at least two significant respects. First, defendants argue that, assuming Soto-Beníquez and Soto-Ramírez did distribute drugs to points in Bitumul from 1990 until late 1992 or early 1993, the drug points were largely independent; the fact of a common supplier does not mean the independent drug point operators agreed to a conspiracy, much less to the ensuing murders. Second, defendants argue that, by late 1992, both Soto-Beníquez and Soto-Ramírez were out of action: one had been imprisoned and the other had left for Florida after narrowly escaping an attempt on his life. Any conspiracy was by then concluded, defendants assert, and the government's attempts to include another year's worth of events, until March 1994, in the conspiracy were improper. Those events involved a different and rival drug dealer, Rodríguez-López (a/k/a El Bebo), and took place partly in another town called Fajardo. The defendants argue that if their theory as to multiple conspiracies is correct, then there are significant ramifications that affect the application of the statute of limitations, the admissibility of testimony (particularly, evidence of fifteen horrific murders), the refusal to sever certain defendants, and various sentencing determinations.

The defendants also complain, with justification, about the government's poor record of pre-trial production of required materials, as well as its belated springing of requested sentencing enhancements on certain defendants after the Pre-Sentence Investigative Report (PSR) had been prepared and the defendants' objections to it had been served. The trial court was obviously frustrated with the government's conduct in this case and threatened three times to dismiss the indictment, but in the end did not. Post-trial, the court also found the evidence sufficient to support the convictions.

Over twenty-five issues are raised in these appeals and are discussed in the sequence of events leading to and through trial, with the exception of the multiple conspiracies issue, which we discuss first.


The facts are stated, for sufficiency of the evidence purposes, as a reasonable jury could have found them, in the light most favorable to the verdict.

The government's case turned on the testimony of several cooperating co-conspirators — Ramón Cesário-Soto, Victor Negrón-Maldonado (a/k/a Pitosito), and Luis Torrens Alicea (a/k/a Pito Salsa) — as well as the testimony of police officers and investigators.

The case centers around six drug points in the Bitumul Ward of Hato Rey, San Juan, Puerto Rico: (1) Callejón Nueve, operated by Juan Soto — Ramírez and later by Negrón-Maldonado, (2) La Pared, also operated by Soto-Ramírez, (3) Street B between La Pared and Callejón Nueve, operated by Juan Cintrón-Caraballo and supplied by Soto-Ramírez, (4) El Palo on Laguna Street, operated by Alberto Santiago-Figueroa, a defendant not participating in this trial, and supplied by Soto-Ramírez, (5) Cuba Street, which included two distribution points operated by Soto-Beníquez and Soto Ramírez, and (6) Laguna Street, operated by Miguel Vega-Cosme. These points, which began operation around 1990, dealt in crack cocaine, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana.

Soto-Ramírez and Soto-Beníquez were the leaders of the operation. Soto-Ramírez operated or supplied almost all of the drug points. His house at Callejón Dos was used by various defendants to prepare crack and heroin for distribution at the six drug points and to store weapons to defend and acquire territory for the drug points. When defendant Miguel Vega-Cosme established his drug point on Laguna Street with his son, defendant Miguel Vega-Colón, he first requested permission from Soto-Ramírez.

Soto-Beníquez served as the triggerman and principal supplier. He ultimately supplied most of the narcotics sold at the drug points and owned many of the weapons used to kill rival gang members. Cesário Soto-described him as "one with ranks" in the drug world.

The remaining defendants were involved in running one or more of the six drug points. Eduardo Alicea-Torres sold drugs at the Cuba Street and Callejón Dos drug points from 1990 until at least 1991, and later began his own drug point. Ramon Fernández-Malavé packaged crack and cocaine for Soto-Ramírez and cooperating government witness Negrón-Maldonado in 1992. Carmelo Vega-Pacheco packaged drugs for Soto-Ramírez and Negrón-Maldonado through 1992, and sold narcotics at the Cuba Street drug points in 1990 and 1991. Armando García-García sold narcotics at the Cuba Street drug points from 1990 to 1991, packaged drugs in 1992, and sold drugs at Callejón Nueve in 1993. From 1990 to 1992, Jose de León Maysonet stored narcotics and weapons for the drug points, and after 1992, he sold narcotics at Callejón Nueve. Juan Cintrón-Caraballo operated the Street B drug point throughout the charged conspiracy. Miguel Vega-Cosme supplied Soto-Ramírez with narcotics and operated a drug point at Laguna Street from 1990 until 1994 with Soto-Ramírez's permission. Vega-Cosme also supplied ammunition used in shootings of rival gang members in 1992 and 1993,...

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