U.S. v. Williams, 04-5126.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
Citation445 F.3d 724
Docket NumberNo. 04-5126.,04-5126.
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Joseph Edmund WILLIAMS, a/k/a Abdullah Shabazz, a/k/a Taharqa Abdullah Shabazz, Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date18 April 2006

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445 F.3d 724
UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Joseph Edmund WILLIAMS, a/k/a Abdullah Shabazz, a/k/a Taharqa Abdullah Shabazz, Defendant-Appellant.
No. 04-5126.
United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.
Argued February 3, 2006.
Decided April 18, 2006.

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ARGUED: Geremy Charles Kamens, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Office of the Federal Public Defender, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellant. Patrick F. Stokes, Assistant United States Attorney, Erik Russell Barnett, Assistant United States Attorney, Office of the United States Attorney, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Frank W. Dunham, Jr., Federal Public Defender, Meghan S. Skelton, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellant. Paul J. McNulty, United States Attorney, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellee.

Before TRAXLER, GREGORY, and DUNCAN, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded by published opinion. Judge TRAXLER wrote the opinion, in which Judge GREGORY and Judge DUNCAN joined.


TRAXLER, Circuit Judge.

Joseph Williams, who had previously been convicted of a felony, was convicted

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of unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition. See 18 U.S.C.A. § 922(g)(1) (West 2000). Over Williams's objection, the district court permitted the government to prove Williams's possession of a weapon through evidence linking Williams to the killing of Gail Collins. Because of the then-uncertain status of the Sentencing Guidelines,1 the district court submitted additional questions to the jury after it returned the guilty verdict. The jury answered the questions and determined that the government had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Williams killed Collins. Based on this factual finding, the district court at sentencing cross-referenced the guideline governing first-degree murder and imposed the life sentence required by the Sentencing Guidelines. See U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(c)(1)(B).

Williams appeals, challenging his conviction and sentence. We affirm Williams's conviction, but we vacate his sentence and remand for re-sentencing.


Viewed in the light most favorable to the government, the evidence presented at trial established the following. Gail Collins was a conscientious employee of the United States Treasury Department who lived in Alexandria, Virginia. She was at work on March 11, 2003, and indicated to coworkers that she would be at work for the rest of the week. Collins did not show up for work after March 11, nor did she call to say that she would be absent. Friends and family eventually began worrying and contacted police on March 21, 2003. Police entered Collins's apartment that day and found her body in the bedroom. She had been shot through the head execution-style, while she was kneeling and the killer was standing over her. The bullet went through her head, out through her cheek, and lodged in her shoulder. Collins's car keys, ATM card, and check register were missing, but nothing else in the apartment appeared to be disturbed, and there were no signs of forced entry. Records from the electronically operated front door of her apartment building showed that Collins entered the building on the night of March 11, but the records did not show that she entered the building after that.

Bank records revealed that Collins's ATM card had been used multiple times in the early morning hours of March 12. Between 2:00 and 2:30 a.m., $580 dollars in $20 bills had been withdrawn over the course of nine transactions. Those withdrawals caused Collins's account to be overdrawn for the first time since she opened it. There were other unsuccessful attempts to withdraw money a few hours later. During one of these unsuccessful attempts, an ATM camera took a picture of a woman identified by police officers as Kathleen Simmons, a crack addict and prostitute.

Simmons told police that on the night of March 11, she was standing on the street after missing the last bus, hoping that someone would give her a ride. Williams (whom she did not know before that evening) drove by and asked her if she knew where he could get some crack. She told him she did and hopped in his car. He drove her back to his apartment to smoke the little bit of crack that he had. Williams lived in the same apartment building as Collins; his apartment was on the 15th floor and hers was on the 11th floor. On the way up to his apartment,

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Williams paused the elevator on one of the floors below his floor, stepped out of the elevator, and looked up and down the hall.

After Williams and Simmons smoked Williams's crack, they got back in his car and he drove to a nearby ATM. He gave Simmons an ATM card and a PIN number and asked her to withdraw $400. The ATM card belonged to Collins. When Simmons asked about the woman's name on the card, Williams said the card belonged to a friend and that they were breaking up. Simmons tried to withdraw money, but she was unsuccessful, because the account had already been overdrawn. Simmons got back in Williams's car and told him that she could not get any money. Simmons then directed Williams to a housing project in the District of Columbia where they could buy crack. Williams gave Simmons $120 or $140 in crisp $20 bills, and she returned with 15 "dime" bags of crack cocaine. They returned to Williams's apartment to smoke the crack. As Williams was getting out of the car, Simmons saw him reach under his seat and retrieve an object that he put inside his pants. On the way up to his apartment, Williams again stopped the elevator on a lower floor, got out, looked up and down the hall, and then got back inside the elevator. Once on the 15th floor, Williams went into a trash room, where Simmons saw him take a gun from inside his waistband and place it on top of the air-conditioning duct. He removed ammunition from his pocket once they were inside the apartment.

After Williams and Simmons smoked the crack they had bought, Williams left for work, but he returned about an hour later. He gathered up CDs, which he and Simmons sold at a music store for about $100. Williams and Simmons then bought more crack, which they smoked at his apartment. After the drugs were gone, Williams took Simmons to her friend's house. Simmons never saw Williams again.

Simmons was the government's star witness at trial, and she testified to the facts outlined above. The defense, however, had several grounds upon which to impeach Simmons's credibility. First, Simmons was an admitted drug addict and prostitute. In addition, she had been shot in the head and was left with brain damage, had auditory and visual hallucinations, and took multiple psychiatric medications. Nonetheless, much of Simmons's story was corroborated. The manager of the music store recognized Simmons as having sold CDs with Williams, and the superintendent of Williams's apartment building saw Simmons in the building with Williams on the morning of March 12. And while there was no evidence indicating that Simmons knew Collins, the government presented evidence showing that Williams knew Collins. Williams had helped Collins out from time to time, and Williams brought Collins with him to his niece's house on one occasion.

The government also presented evidence that suggested a motive for the killing. In the months before Collins was killed, Williams's drug addiction appeared to be spiraling out of control. Williams was buying hundreds of dollars worth of crack every other day from Keith Bartee and staying up until the wee hours of the morning smoking the crack with Bartee and Bartee's girlfriend. Williams was having severe money problems around this same time. He quit making car payments in November 2002, stopped paying rent in January 2003, and was officially evicted in late March 2003. He cashed out vacation time at work, asked friends and family for money, stole money from his bank by making ATM withdrawals after making phony ATM deposits, and stole a check from a

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friend, forging her signature and making it payable to him in the amount of $4,000. Williams had also been getting money from Collins. About a week or so before she died, Collins told her mother and her niece that she was not going to give Williams any more money.

In the weeks after Collins's body was discovered, Williams made statements that could be viewed as evidence of his guilt. After being interviewed by the police, Williams's niece asked him if he had killed Collins. Williams told her that it was "none of [her] concern," J.A. 833, and that what she "[did]n't know wouldn't hurt" her. J.A. 852. In addition, Keith Bartee, Williams's main drug supplier, became concerned about Williams's strange and paranoid behavior. Bartee asked Williams if he had killed someone, and Williams remained silent.

Although the weapon used to kill Collins was never found, Williams was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition by a felon and user of illegal drugs. See 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 922(g)(1) & (3). The jury found Williams guilty.

Collins was murdered in March 2003, and the case was headed for trial in the summer of 2004. Before the case went to trial, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 124 S.Ct. 2531, 159 L.Ed.2d 403 (2004). The government, to protect its ability to sentence Williams based on his involvement in Collins's murder, obtained a superseding indictment that included allegations about the murder, and the district court announced its intention to submit sentencing issues to the jury. Before the trial started, however, this court issued its opinion in United States v. Hammoud, 381 F.3d 316 (4th Cir.2004) (en banc),2 which concluded that Blakely did not apply to proceedings under the Sentencing Guidelines. See id. at 349-50. Notwithstanding Hammoud, the district court proceeded with its plan to submit sentencing factors to the jury. Accordingly,...

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