United States v. Aquart, 122018 FED2, 12-5086-cr

Docket Nº:12-5086-cr
Opinion Judge:Reena Raggi, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:United States of America, Appellee, v. Azibo Aquart, AKA D., AKA Dreddy, AKA Jumbo, AKA Azibo Smith, AKA Azibo Siwatu Jahi Smith, Defendant-Appellant, Azikiwe Aquart, AKA Zee, Nathaniel Grant, AKA Correctional Officer Stone, Efrain Johnson, Defendants.
Attorney:Sean J. Bolser (Barry J. Fisher, on the brief), Federal Capital Appellate Resource Counsel Project, Brooklyn, New York; Beverly Van Ness, Esq., New York, New York, for Defendant-Appellant. Tracy Lee Dayton, Jacabed Rodriguez-Coss, Assistant United States Attorneys (Sandra S. Glover, Assistant Uni...
Judge Panel:Before: Calabresi, Raggi, Wesley, Circuit Judges. Calabresi, Circuit Judge
Case Date:December 20, 2018
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
 
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United States of America, Appellee,

v.

Azibo Aquart, AKA D., AKA Dreddy, AKA Jumbo, AKA Azibo Smith, AKA Azibo Siwatu Jahi Smith, Defendant-Appellant,

Azikiwe Aquart, AKA Zee, Nathaniel Grant, AKA Correctional Officer Stone, Efrain Johnson, Defendants.

No. 12-5086-cr

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

December 20, 2018

Argued: August 29, 2016

On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut

On appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Arterton, J.) sentencing defendant Azibo Aquart to death for his role in drug and racketeering related murders, Aquart raises myriad challenges to both his conviction and death sentence.

Sean J. Bolser (Barry J. Fisher, on the brief), Federal Capital Appellate Resource Counsel Project, Brooklyn, New York; Beverly Van Ness, Esq., New York, New York, for Defendant-Appellant.

Tracy Lee Dayton, Jacabed Rodriguez-Coss, Assistant United States Attorneys (Sandra S. Glover, Assistant United States Attorney; Leslie R. Caldwell, Assistant Attorney General, Sung-Hee Suh, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, David M. Lieberman, Attorney, Criminal Division, Appellate Section, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., on the brief), for John H. Durham, United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut, New Haven, Connecticut, for Appellee.

Before: Calabresi, Raggi, Wesley, Circuit Judges.

Reena Raggi, Circuit Judge.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

BACKGROUND ......................................................................................... 7

I. The Guilt Phase of Trial ................................................................. 7

A. The Prosecution Case ................................................................. 7

1. The Aquart Drug Enterprise .............................................. 7

2. The Murders of Tina Johnson, James Reid, and Basil Williams ................................................................................. 8

a. Tina Johnson Interferes with Aquart's Drug Enterprise ........................................................................................... 8

b. Planning the Murders ...................................................... 9

c. The August 24, 2005 Murders ....................................... 10

d. Discovery of the Murder Victims ................................ 11

e. Forensic Evidence ........................................................... 12

f. Post-Murder Inculpatory Evidence .............................. 13

(i) Lashika Johnson Testifies to Aquart's Efforts To Destroy Evidence and to Efrain Johnson's Admissions ................................................................ 13

(ii) Aquart Admits Destroying Evidence .............. 14

(iii) Aquart's Efforts To Obstruct Justice ............... 15

B. The Defense Case ...................................................................... 16

C. Verdict ........................................................................................ 17

II. The Capital Penalty Phase of Trial ............................................. 17

A. The Prosecution Case ............................................................... 17

B. Defense Mitigating Factors ...................................................... 19

C. The Penalty Verdict .................................................................. 21

D. Sentence ...................................................................................... 22

DISCUSSION ............................................................................................. 23

I. Guilty Verdict Challenges ............................................................ 23

A. Sufficiency Challenge to VICAR Counts .............................. 23

1. Interstate Commerce Nexus ............................................. 24

2. Motive .................................................................................. 28

B. Perjury Challenges to Conviction ........................................... 30

1. John Taylor .......................................................................... 32

2. Lashika Johnson ................................................................. 40

C. Prosecutorial Misconduct in Summation .............................. 46

II. Sentencing Challenges ................................................................. 51

A. Standard for Reviewing Unpreserved Sentencing Challenges ................................................................................. 52

B. Prosecutorial Misconduct Pertaining to Efrain Johnson Evidence .................................................................................... 55

1. Improper Vouching ............................................................ 58

2. Misleading Characterization of Plea Allocution ........... 73

3. Denigrating Defense Strategy .......................................... 78

C. Sufficiency Challenge ............................................................... 84

1. Substantial Planning and Premeditation Aggravator ... 86

2. Multiple Killings Aggravator ........................................... 89

D. Constitutionality Challenges to Death Penalty .................... 94

1. Per Se Eighth Amendment Challenge ............................. 94

2. Proportionality Challenge ................................................ 99

a. Judicial Proportionality Review Is Not Constitutionally Mandated for Capital Sentences Under the Federal Death Penalty Act ........................ 99

b. Aquart's Death Sentence Is Not Constitutionally Disproportionate ......................................................... 103

3. Arbitrariness Challenge .................................................. 106

4. Necessary and Proper Clause Challenge ..................... 112

5. "Originalist" Challenge .................................................. 121

a. Extending Capital Punishment to VICAR and CCE Murders ........................................................................ 123

b. Federalism and the Federal Death Penalty in Connecticut .................................................................. 128

CONCLUSION ....................................................................................... 136

Early on the morning of August 24, 2005, drug dealer Azibo Aquart, together with his brother Azikiwe Aquart and confederates Efrain Johnson and John Taylor, donned masks and, at gunpoint, forced their way into perceived drug competitor Tina Johnson's apartment in Bridgeport, Connecticut, whereupon the men restrained her as well as fellow occupants James Reid and Basil Williams before bludgeoning all three to death with baseball bats.1 After a five week trial in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Janet Bond Arterton, Judge), the jury found Aquart guilty of conspiracy to commit violent crimes in aid of racketeering ("VICAR"), specifically, murder, see 18 U.S.C. § 1959(a)(5); conspiracy to traffic cocaine, see 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(A)(iii), and 846; and six substantive crimes punishable by a possible death sentence: three for VICAR murder, see 18 U.S.C. § 1959(a)(1), and three for murder in connection with a continuing criminal drug enterprise ("CCE murder"), see 21 U.S.C. § 848(e)(1)(A). A capital penalty proceeding followed at which the same jury unanimously voted for a death sentence on the two VICAR and two CCE murder counts pertaining to the murders of Tina Johnson and Basil Williams, but not for these crimes as pertaining to James Reid.

Aquart here appeals both his conviction and his death sentence. As to conviction, he argues that (1) the trial evidence was insufficient to support guilty verdicts on any of the charged VICAR counts, (2) the prosecution suborned perjury by witnesses John Taylor and Lashika Johnson, and (3) he was prejudiced by prosecutorial misconduct in summation. As to sentence, Aquart's challenges fall into three categories: (1) prosecutorial misconduct at the penalty phase, (2) insufficiency of the evidence as to certain identified aggravating factors, and (3) unconstitutionality of the death penalty both generally and as applied to his case.

The panel affirms Aquart's conviction but, based on prosecutorial error, vacates his death sentence and remands the case for a new penalty...

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