United States v. Jackson

Decision Date20 April 2022
Docket Number20-9
Parties UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff – Appellee, v. Richard Allen JACKSON, Defendant – Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

ARGUED: Andrew Reed Childers, FEDERAL COMMUNITY DEFENDER OFFICE FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for Appellant. Anthony Joseph Enright, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charlotte, North Carolina, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Shawn Nolan, FEDERAL COMMUNITY DEFENDER OFFICE FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for Appellant. Dena J. King, United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charlotte, North Carolina, for Appellee.

Before NIEMEYER, MOTZ, and KING, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge Motz wrote the opinion, in which Judge Niemeyer and Judge King joined.


Convicted of causing the death of another through the use of a firearm during a "crime of violence" in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) and sentenced to death pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 924(j), Richard Allen Jackson moves for relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. He contends that the Government failed to prove that he committed a "crime of violence." He is wrong. The jury unanimously found Jackson guilty of federal premeditated first-degree murder, which constitutes a qualifying "crime of violence." Accordingly, we affirm the district court's denial of Jackson's successive § 2255 motion.


We assume familiarity with the facts underlying this case, which are set out in detail in United States v. Jackson , 327 F.3d 273, 279–81 (4th Cir. 2003). To summarize, Jackson confessed that he kidnapped twenty-two-year-old Karen Styles as she went for a run in the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina in October 1994. Jackson duct-taped Styles to a tree and raped her. He then shocked her with a stun gun above her left breast and multiple times in her pubic area. When Styles began to scream after the duct tape Jackson had placed on her mouth became loose, Jackson shot her once in the head, killing her.

In 1995, a North Carolina state jury convicted Jackson of first-degree murder, first-degree rape, and first-degree kidnapping. The court, consistent with the jury's recommendation, imposed the death penalty. But in 1998, the Supreme Court of North Carolina vacated Jackson's convictions and sentence after determining that the police violated his Miranda rights when interrogating him. See State v. Jackson , 348 N.C. 52, 497 S.E.2d 409 (1998), abrogated by State v. Buchanan , 353 N.C. 332, 543 S.E.2d 823 (2001). In March 2000, prior to a planned second state trial, Jackson pled guilty to second-degree murder and related offenses. A state court sentenced him to twenty-five to thirty-one years' imprisonment.

Then, in October 2000, a federal grand jury returned a single-count superseding indictment charging Jackson with: 1) using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a "crime of violence" in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) and 2) using and carrying a firearm during a "crime of violence" resulting in death in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(j).1 The Government alleged that Jackson committed three "crimes of violence": 1) federal first-degree murder, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1111(a) ; 2) federal kidnapping in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1201(a)(2) ; and 3) federal aggravated sexual abuse, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2241(a)(1)(2).

In 2001, a federal jury unanimously voted to convict Jackson and recommended he be sentenced to death. The two-page verdict sheet reports the jury's unanimous finding that Jackson committed 1) "the crime of kidnap[p]ing Karen Styles"; 2) "the crime of aggravated sexual abuse of Karen Styles"; and 3) "the crime of the murder of Karen Styles." As to the murder conviction, the jury specifically found that Jackson committed the murder of Karen Styles 1) "with malice aforethought, willfully, deliberately, maliciously and with premeditation"; 2) "during the perpetration of kidnap[p]ing"; and 3) "during the perpetration of aggravated sexual abuse." On direct appeal, we affirmed Jackson's conviction and sentence. See Jackson , 327 F.3d at 279. In 2009, the district court denied Jackson's first motion for post-conviction relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. It subsequently denied Jackson a certificate of appealability, as did this Court.

In 2015, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Johnson v. United States , 576 U.S. 591, 135 S.Ct. 2551, 192 L.Ed.2d 569 (2015). There, the Court struck down the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii), as unconstitutionally vague. This meant that to serve as a predicate offense under the ACCA, a "violent felony" now had to satisfy the force (or elements) clause.2 In 2016, the Court held that Johnson applies retroactively to cases on collateral review. See Welch v. United States , 578 U.S. 120, 136 S.Ct. 1257, 194 L.Ed.2d 387 (2016). Given these developments in the law, we authorized Jackson to file a successive § 2255 motion relying on Johnson and Welch.

The district court stayed action on Jackson's successive § 2255 motion pending multiple subsequent decisions from the Supreme Court and this Court. Most relevant here, in 2019, the Supreme Court applied Johnson 's reasoning to 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), the statute under which the federal jury convicted Jackson. See United States v. Davis , ––– U.S. ––––, 139 S. Ct. 2319, 204 L.Ed.2d 757 (2019). In doing so, it struck down the residual clause of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(3)(B) as unconstitutionally vague. Id. at 2336. Post-Davis , an underlying "crime of violence" must satisfy the force (or elements) clause of § 924(c)(3)(A). That is, it must "ha[ve] as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another." We subsequently held that Davis established a new rule of constitutional law made retroactive on collateral review.3 See In re Thomas , 988 F.3d 783, 786 (4th Cir. 2021).

In March 2020, the district court granted the Government's motion to dismiss Jackson's successive § 2255 motion and denied Jackson a certificate of appealability. The court did so because in its view, both murder and aggravated sexual abuse qualified as "crimes of violence" under § 924(c)(3)(A). The district court relied on our prior decisions, In re Irby , 858 F.3d 231 (4th Cir. 2017), and United States v. Mathis , 932 F.3d 242 (4th Cir. 2019), to hold that "the offense of murder in the first degree is unquestionably a crime of violence under the force clause." In Irby , we reasoned that "[c]ommon sense dictates that murder is categorically a crime of violence under the force clause.... In sum, one cannot unlawfully kill another human being without a use of physical force capable of causing physical pain or injury to another." 858 F.3d at 237–38. In Mathis , we relied on Irby to hold that the Virginia first-degree murder statute, Va. Code § 18.2-32 (which is almost identical to the federal first-degree murder statute at issue here in defining both premeditated murder and felony murder as first-degree murder), is categorically a "crime of violence." See 932 F.3d at 265.

Critically, the district court denied § 2255 relief prior to the Supreme Court's decision in Borden v. United States , ––– U.S. ––––, 141 S. Ct. 1817, 210 L.Ed.2d 63 (2021). Borden holds that a criminal offense that requires only a mens rea of recklessness cannot qualify as a "violent felony" under the force (or elements) clause of the ACCA. Id. at 1821–22, 1834. "In light of the striking similarities [in the] definitions [of "crime of violence" in § 924(c) and "violent felony" in the ACCA], the court decisions interpreting one such definition are persuasive as to the meaning of the other[ ]." United States v. McNeal , 818 F.3d 141, 153 n.9 (4th Cir. 2016).4 Jackson contends that Borden requires reversal of the district court's denial of his successive § 2255 motion.

We granted Jackson a certificate of appealability and now consider that question.


To support a conviction under § 924(c) for using or carrying a firearm during and in relation to a "crime of violence," the Government need only prove one qualifying predicate offense. See United States v. Said , 26 F.4th 653, 659 (4th Cir. 2022) ("[A] § 924(c) conviction may stand even if the jury based its verdict on an invalid predicate, so long as the jury also relied on a valid predicate."). That crime must be a felony that "has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another." 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(3)(A). This use of force must be "purposeful or knowing," Borden , 141 S. Ct. at 1828, and have the "potential[ ]" to "cause physical pain or injury." Stokeling v. United States , ––– U.S. ––––, 139 S. Ct. 544, 554, 202 L.Ed.2d 512 (2019).

To determine whether a felony meets this definition and thus constitutes a "crime of violence," we generally use the categorical approach. See United States v. Roof , 10 F.4th 314, 398 (4th Cir. 2021), cert. pending (2022). That is, we "look to whether the statutory elements of the offense necessarily require the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force." United States v. Simms , 914 F.3d 229, 233 (4th Cir. 2019) (en banc). We consider only the elements of the crime as defined in the statute, not the facts particular to the case at hand. Thus, we ask whether the "most innocent conduct" criminalized by the statute meets the definition of a "crime of violence." Roof , 10 F.4th at 398.

In certain circumstances, we apply a "variant" of the categorical approach referred to as the modified categorical approach. Descamps v. United States , 570 U.S. 254, 257, 133 S.Ct. 2276, 186 L.Ed.2d 438 (2013). We use the modified categorical approach when the statute at issue is divisible. Divisible statutes set forth "multiple, alternative versions of the crime" with...

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