U.S. v. Vega Molina, No. 03-1625.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
Writing for the CourtSelya
Citation407 F.3d 511
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Appellee, v. David VEGA MOLINA, Defendant, Appellant. United States of America, Appellee, v. Victor Manuel Villega-Angulo, A/K/A Guirio, Defendant, Appellant. United States of America, Appellee, v. Michelle Rodriguez-Matos, Defendant, Appellant. United States of America, Appellee, v. Juan Zuñiga-Bruno, Defendant, Appellant.
Docket NumberNo. 03-1650.,No. 03-1625.,No. 03-1947.,No. 03-1649.
Decision Date19 May 2005
407 F.3d 511
UNITED STATES of America, Appellee,
v.
David VEGA MOLINA, Defendant, Appellant.
United States of America, Appellee,
v.
Victor Manuel Villega-Angulo, A/K/A Guirio, Defendant, Appellant.
United States of America, Appellee,
v.
Michelle Rodriguez-Matos, Defendant, Appellant.
United States of America, Appellee,
v.
Juan Zuñiga-Bruno, Defendant, Appellant.
No. 03-1625.
No. 03-1649.
No. 03-1650.
No. 03-1947.
United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit.
Heard March 10, 2005.
Decided May 19, 2005.

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Linda Backiel for appellant Vega Molina.

Elaine Mittleman for appellant Villega-Angulo.

José C. Romo Matienzo for appellant Rodríguez-Matos.

Joseph S. Berman, with whom Berman & Dowell was on brief, for appellant Zuñiga-Bruno.

Germán A. Rieckehoff, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom H.S. Garcia, United States Attorney, and Nelson Pérez-Sosa, Assistant United States Attorney (Senior Appellate Attorney), were on brief, for the United States.

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

SELYA, Circuit Judge.


These appeals devolve from a violent robbery and hostage taking, which resulted in two murders and serious injury to a third victim. After a protracted trial, a jury convicted the four jointly tried defendants on all counts. Each of them received at least one life sentence.

On appeal, the defendants, ably represented, serve up a salmagundi of constitutional, statutory, and evidentiary arguments. Although we reject most of this asseverational array, we conclude that one defendant should be retried because of a prejudicial deprivation of his rights under the Sixth Amendment. Moreover, we find that the prosecution of count 4 violated the Ex Post Facto Clause. That violation requires us to vacate the remaining defendants' sentences on the count in question and to remand for resentencing on that count.

I. BACKGROUND

We rehearse the facts in the light most favorable to the verdicts, consistent with record support. United States v. Fenton, 367 F.3d 14, 17 (1st Cir.2004).

Fernándes Editores (FE), a Mexican company, publishes coloring books and other materials for children. The company maintains a warehouse and branch office in Puerto Rico. Defendant-appellant Michelle Rodríguez-Matos (Rodríguez-Matos) is the cousin of a former FE employee. While her cousin worked there, Rodríguez-Matos occasionally would visit the premises. During these trips, Rodríguez-Matos became familiar with FE's operations and with the layout of its premises.

Defendant-appellant Juan Zuñiga-Bruno (Zuñiga) and his wife, defendant-appellant Evelyn Rodríguez-Santiago (Rodríguez-Santiago), were acquaintances of Rodríguez-Matos.

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The couple needed money and Rodríguez-Matos mistakenly believed that there would be large sums of cash at FE's offices from time to time. When she suggested that they rob FE, Zuñiga, Rodríguez-Santiago, and a fourth individual, Lolo Falau (who died before trial) embraced the suggestion. The quartet planned such a robbery.

On January 31, 1995, Zuñiga, the two women, and defendant-appellant Victor Villega-Angulo (Villega) proceeded in two cars to FE's premises. When they arrived, Zuñiga and Villega entered the building. Once inside, they encountered three FE employees, namely, Alberto Morales, Benjamin Ocasio Duran, and Guillermo Muñoz. Brandishing firearms, they ordered the men to lie face down on the floor. When Zuñiga and Villega were unable to find any money, they called Rodríguez-Matos, who provided suggestions about where to look.

Zuñiga and Villega were unable to locate any company funds. They helped themselves to the cash that the three employees had on their persons and shot Morales and Ocasio Duran (the shots killed the former and seriously wounded the latter). They then kidnaped the branch manager(Muñoz); placed him in the trunk of his own car; and drove the automobile from the scene.

The four miscreants rendezvoused at the house that Zuñiga and Rodríguez-Santiago shared with their children and Rodríguez-Santiago's sister, Jessica Rivera Santiago (Rivera). Once there, they placed Muñoz in an empty bedroom and held him hostage for approximately one week. During that interval, Rodríguez-Matos stayed at the house to assist in guarding Muñoz. The defendants also recruited Falau and defendant-appellant David Vega Molina (Vega) to aid in that effort.

As part of the new plan, Zuñiga contacted FE and demanded a ransom. Contrary to Zuñiga's instructions, FE contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). An undercover FBI agent posed as an FE executive and began to negotiate the conditions of Muñoz's return. At some point, he provided the kidnapers with a telephone number that they could call to firm up the arrangements for delivery of the ransom. Rodríguez-Matos's stepmother worked for the telephone company and Zuñiga asked Rodríguez-Matos to contact her in order to match a subscriber's name to the telephone number. When the kidnapers learned that the number belonged to the FBI, the men decided that Muñoz would have to be assassinated (the two women, Rodríguez-Santiago and Rodríguez-Matos, dissented from this decision). On February 5, 1995, Muñoz was driven to a remote location and murdered.

II. TRAVEL OF THE CASE

The investigation into the robbery, hostage taking, and murders took several years. It was not until September 8, 1999 that a federal grand jury returned a five-count indictment. Count 1 charged three of the appellants — Rodríguez-Matos, Zuñiga, and Villega — with conspiracy to interfere with interstate commerce by robbery, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1951 (the Hobbs Act). Count 2 charged Zuñiga and Villega with the use of firearms in the commission of that offense resulting in Morales's death, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(j). Count 3 asserted that the same two defendants had engaged in carjacking, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2119. Count 4 charged all four appellants with conspiring to take a hostage, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1203(a). Count 5 charged that Zuñiga, Villega, and Vega had killed Muñoz as retaliation against FE for having reported Muñoz's kidnaping to the FBI, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1513(a)(1)(B).

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The indictment named Rodríguez-Santiago only in count 1. She eventually entered a plea of guilty to that count and appeared at the trial as a government witness. She was later sentenced to a term of eighteen months in accordance with her plea agreement. She is not a party to these appeals.

A trial took place in the summer of 2002 and consumed nearly four weeks. Twenty-two witnesses testified. These included Rodríguez-Santiago, Rivera, and FBI special agent Edwin López. Among the defense witnesses, the most interesting testimony came from Vilmarie Rodríguez, who swore that she, not her sister (Michelle Rodríguez-Matos), was the person who had participated in the criminal activity. After hearing all the testimony, the jury found the appellants guilty as charged.

The district court held a series of sentencing hearings in the spring of 2003. The court imposed the following sentences (all concurrent):

1. Rodríguez-Matos — twenty years on count 1; life imprisonment on count 4.

2. Zuñiga — twenty years on count 1; fifteen years on count 3; and life imprisonment on each of counts 2, 4, and 5.

3. Villega — twenty years on count 1; fifteen years on count 3; and life imprisonment on each of counts 2, 4, and 5.

4. Vega — life imprisonment on each of counts 4 and 5.

Vega, Villega, Rodríguez-Matos, and Zuñiga have filed timely notices of appeal. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and 18 U.S.C. § 3742(a).

III. DISCUSSION

Mindful of the number and variety of the issues articulated by the appellants, we divide our discussion into five segments: First, we address the Confrontation Clause issues advanced by Zuñiga and Vega. Second, we consider a claim under the Ex Post Facto Clause pressed by all the appellants. Third, we review the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the various convictions. Fourth, we consider myriad assignments of trial error. Fifth, we turn to the district court's sentencing determinations.

A. Confrontation Clause Claims.

The Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment guarantees a criminal defendant the right "to be confronted with the witnesses against him." The right to confrontation embodies the right to cross-examination. Pointer v. Texas, 380 U.S. 400, 404, 85 S.Ct. 1065, 13 L.Ed.2d 923 (1965). For that reason, out-of-court statements may be admitted against criminal defendants only in certain limited circumstances. See Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 124 S.Ct. 1354, 1374, 158 L.Ed.2d 177 (2004).

Against this backdrop, Zuñiga and Vega asseverate that the admission against them of Agent López's testimony about the contents of Villega's out-of-court confession transgressed the Confrontation Clause. See Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123, 136-37, 88 S.Ct. 1620, 20 L.Ed.2d 476 (1968) (restricting the circumstances in which a defendant's out-of-court confession may be admitted in a joint trial). Additionally, Vega asserts that the district court unfairly curtailed his cross-examination of Rodríguez-Santiago and, thus, further abridged his Sixth Amendment rights. At first, we treat these claims separately.

1. Villega's Confession. Villega did not testify at trial. Agent López, however, was allowed to testify about the contents of Villega's earlier confession. It is well-established that the out-of-court statements of a non-testifying defendant,

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even if admissible against the declarant, may not be used against a jointly tried codefendant unless otherwise independently admissible against that codefendant. See Lilly v. Virginia, 527 U.S. 116, 124, 119 S.Ct. 1887, 144 L.Ed.2d 117 (1999); Bruton, 391 U.S....

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148 practice notes
  • United States v. Sandoval, No. 18-1993
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • July 7, 2021
    ...the Confrontation Clause have been met." United States v. Walter, 434 F.3d 30, 33 (1st Cir. 2006) (quoting United States v. Vega Molina, 407 F.3d 511, 522 (1st Cir. 2005)). Where the appellant did not lodge a proper objection below, we review only for plain error. United States v. Díaz, 670......
  • United States v. Lyons, Nos. 12–1835
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • January 17, 2014
    ...law, while residing in Florida. He was therefore on notice that Florida law would likely be at issue. See United States v. Vega Molina, 407 F.3d 511, 525 (1st Cir.2005) (“[E]rroneous statutory citations in an indictment do not constitute grounds for reversing a conviction, as long as the de......
  • U.S. v. Yeje-Cabrera, No. 03-1329.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • November 2, 2005
    ...Booker/Antonakopoulos argument, so they have waived any claim they might have had under those decisions. See United States v. Vega Molina, 407 F.3d 511, 534 n. 7 (1st Pérez did file a supplemental brief seeking resentencing under Booker, but he has not shown why resentencing is justified in......
  • United States v. Latorre-Cacho, No. 15-1295.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • October 25, 2017
    ...persuasion as to each of these four elements. See United States v. Bramley, 847 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2017) ; United States v. Vega Molina, 407 F.3d 511, 521 (1st Cir. 2005).In this case, the district judge, when instructing the jury in open court, twice ad-libbed remarks that included "firea......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
146 cases
  • United States v. Sandoval, No. 18-1993
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • July 7, 2021
    ...the Confrontation Clause have been met." United States v. Walter, 434 F.3d 30, 33 (1st Cir. 2006) (quoting United States v. Vega Molina, 407 F.3d 511, 522 (1st Cir. 2005)). Where the appellant did not lodge a proper objection below, we review only for plain error. United States v. Díaz, 670......
  • United States v. Lyons, Nos. 12–1835
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • January 17, 2014
    ...law, while residing in Florida. He was therefore on notice that Florida law would likely be at issue. See United States v. Vega Molina, 407 F.3d 511, 525 (1st Cir.2005) (“[E]rroneous statutory citations in an indictment do not constitute grounds for reversing a conviction, as long as the de......
  • U.S. v. Yeje-Cabrera, No. 03-1329.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • November 2, 2005
    ...Booker/Antonakopoulos argument, so they have waived any claim they might have had under those decisions. See United States v. Vega Molina, 407 F.3d 511, 534 n. 7 (1st Pérez did file a supplemental brief seeking resentencing under Booker, but he has not shown why resentencing is justified in......
  • United States v. Latorre-Cacho, No. 15-1295.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • October 25, 2017
    ...persuasion as to each of these four elements. See United States v. Bramley, 847 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2017) ; United States v. Vega Molina, 407 F.3d 511, 521 (1st Cir. 2005).In this case, the district judge, when instructing the jury in open court, twice ad-libbed remarks that included "firea......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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