U.S. v. Straker

Decision Date10 February 2009
Docket NumberNo. 06-102 (JDB).,06-102 (JDB).
Citation596 F.Supp.2d 80
PartiesUNITED STATES of America v. Anderson STRAKER, Christopher Sealey, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Columbia

Steven Roy Kiersh, Washington, DC, for Defendant.

Bruce R. Hegyi, Jeanne Marie Hauch, U.S. Attorney's Office, Washington, DC, for Plaintiff.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JOHN D. BATES, District Judge.

This case arises from the abduction and death of a U.S. citizen, Balram Maharaj, in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago ("Trinidad") in April 2005. Twelve defendants have been extradited over the course of two years, to face charges of conspiracy to commit hostage taking resulting in death in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1203, and aiding and abetting.1 The trial of eight defendants is scheduled to commence in May 2009. The suppression motions filed by two defendants extradited relatively early in the case have proceeded through an evidentiary hearing, and are ready for decision, along with a related motion for return to Trinidad. Anderson Straker moves to suppress a statement he made to the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") during his extradition, and Christopher Sealey moves to suppress his statement to police authorities in Trinidad as well as a separate statement to the FBI. Both defendants move for their return to Trinidad. An evidentiary hearing was held on December 2 and 3, 2008.2 For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny defendants' motions.

DISCUSSION

The resolution of the pending motions requires the Court to make factual findings concerning the background and circumstances in which the statements of Straker and Sealey were taken, in order to determine whether they were provided with notice of any Miranda warnings under the Fifth Amendment or (where applicable) the right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment, how they responded to the notices, and whether their statements were voluntarily given. To make these findings, the Court heard testimony from FBI Special Agent William T. Clauss, the lead FBI investigator who interviewed Straker on two occasions and acted as the FBI's primary liaison with the Trinidad police. The Court also heard testimony from two other FBI agents involved in the interviews, Edgar Cruz and Marvin Freeman (at the time, the FBI assistant legal attache at the U.S. Embassy in Trinidad). Three officers from the Trinidad police force presented testimony as well—Wendell Lucas, Jermaline Mitchell Gosyne, and Marvin Pinder. The testimony of the FBI and Trinidad officers went largely unrebutted, and the Court found them to be credible and forthright witnesses, albeit with some uncertainty as to the specifics of a few events due to the passage of time.3

Straker presented testimony from his investigator, Dale Vaughn, and Dr. Jonathan Arden, an expert in the field of forensic pathology. Vaughn and Arden were credible and forthright witnesses but the probative value of their testimony was limited, as they acknowledged, by the fact that they did not personally observe any of the incidents at issue and lacked information bearing on the credibility of the persons they consulted for information. Straker also intended to present testimony from Theodore Guerra, his former attorney in Trinidad, on the subject of his physical condition after his arrest in Trinidad. Guerra, however, did not appear in Court, and Straker submitted Guerra's affidavit instead which the Court will weigh alongside the testimony and other exhibits received.4 See Straker Ex. 11 (hereinafter, "Guerra Affidavit"). Straker originally planned to testify as well, then exercised his right not to do so, and then made a brief testimonial statement to the Court at the end of the motions hearing, which the Court will also consider.

Sealey did not present any witnesses, instead relying on the testimony of the FBI agents and Trinidad police officers to support his suppression motion. With this preface, the Court turns to the task of making the factual determinations necessary to resolve the motions.

I. Straker's Motion to Suppress

Straker was questioned by the FBI on two occasions—first, on January 9, 2006, shortly after his arrest in Trinidad, and then on July 29, 2007, when he was extradited to the United States. The government has represented that it will seek to admit only the statement from July 29, 2007. Straker contends that suppression of that statement is required under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments based on events that occurred during the first session. Hence, the Court's factual findings cover both interviews.

A. Factual Findings

Straker was arrested by Trinidad police on January 6, 2006, in connection with the April 2005 kidnapping of Balram Maharaj, and taken to the La Horquetta Police Station. See Tr. at 9; Gov't Ex. 5 (station diary extract, entry no. 16).5 The Trinidad police informed him that he was a suspect in their investigation and advised him of his rights under Trinidad law, which include, among other things, the right to remain silent, the right to communicate with a legal representative, relative, or friend, and a caution that the statement may be used against the accused. Tr. at 9-13; see also Gov't Ex. 1 (Trinidad & Tobago Police Service, "Reminder to Law Enforcement Officers Re: Cautions"); Gov't Ex. 2 (Judges' Rules and Administrative Directions to Police, Home Office Circular No. 89/1978) (hereinafter, "Judges' Rules"). Straker was interviewed by Constable Abraham on January 6 and then by Sergeant Lucas on January 7, each time denying knowledge of the kidnapping or killing. Gov't Ex. 3 (interview notes dated Jan. 6, 2006), Gov't Ex. 4 (interview notes dated Jan. 7, 2006). He was advised of his rights under Trinidad law on each occasion. Tr. at 10-13. Straker was asked to sign the officers' interview notes, but declined. Id. at 55-56. Straker met with his attorney, Theodore Guerra, the next day, January 8, at the La Horquetta station for about a half hour, and he instructed Straker not to sign any documents or speak to anyone. Guerra Affidavit ¶ 3; Tr. at 16.

Sergeant Lucas informed Clauss on January 9 that the Trinidad police had taken custody of Straker, and Clauss then requested an opportunity to interview Straker. Tr. at 49-50. Lucas agreed, seeing nothing objectionable because the FBI was conducting a parallel investigation and Trinidad law allows police to question suspects without their attorneys present. Id. at 50-55. Additionally, the investigation had entered a high, fast-paced operational status, with Maharaj's dismembered remains having been discovered the day before. Id. at 89.

At approximately 7:55 p.m. on January 9, the Trinidad police brought Straker up from the holding cell in La Horquetta station, where he had been held since his arrest. Id. at 86; Gov't Ex. 5 (station diary extract, entry no. 93). On the day of the interview, Straker was provided two meals—a lunch of black-eyed peas pelau (stew) with salad, and a dinner of bread, peanut butter, and orange juice, both of which he accepted. Gov't Ex. 5 (station diary extract, entry no. 55). He was taken to a room on the second floor by Lucas and seated on one side of a rectangular table measuring about five feet long and three feet wide, with Lucas and three FBI officers—Clauss, Cruz, and Freeman—on the other side. Tr. at 85-86. No weapons were exposed—in fact, Clauss and Cruz lacked the authority to carry weapons in Trinidad and, hence were unarmed.6 Id. at 56, 128. The testimony was conflicting on whether Straker was handcuffed during the interview, but weighing both Clauss's and Lucas's testimony—Lucas recalling that Straker was cuffed, Clauss certain that he was not7—it is likely that Straker was in handcuffs when Lucas brought him up from the holding cell, but was then uncuffed at some point during the interview. See id. at 56, 129, 201-02.

The interview lasted about three and a half hours. Id. at 56; Gov't Ex. 5 (station diary extract, entry no. 98, indicating that interview ended at 11:30 p.m.). Clauss began the interview by identifying himself, Cruz, and Freeman as members of the FBI investigating the case. Tr. at 86. Clauss read the international advice of rights notice to Straker. Id. at 87, 105-06. That notice informs a suspect of his Miranda rights—most notably, the right to remain silent and the right to have counsel present during the interrogation—but states that appointment of counsel cannot be effectuated by the United States in a foreign country for a person not in U.S. custody. See Gov't Ex. 20.8 Straker asked to have the form so that he could read it himself. Tr. at 87, 105-06. He then closely reviewed it and asked questions about certain parts, which resulted in a conversation "back and forth" about the form for about a half hour. Id. During this time, the FBI team felt that Straker was trying to "feel [them] out" for what the FBI knew about the case and trying to ascertain what the FBI knew about his role in particular. Id. at 89-90. About halfway through the interview, Straker told the agents that he had an attorney. Id. Although Straker's exact words are unknown, the record indicates that he said that "he didn't want to sign anything and that he didn't want to talk details about the case until he had a chance to speak to his lawyer." Id. at 89, 106 (quoting Clauss's testimony); see id. at 144 (Cruz's testimony that [Straker] "just said that ... he wanted—or he would prefer to talk to his attorney before any questions"); id. at 190 (Freeman's testimony that Straker indicated he might want to speak with the FBI at some point).

The session continued for another hour or so, with intermittent questions from the FBI about Straker's biographical and family information (which he readily provided) and responses from Straker that the FBI construed as an attempt by him to keep the conversation going in order to obtain information about what the FBI knew about the case. Tr. at 107-08; Go...

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