United States v. Thompson, No. 6:19-CR-22-REW-HAI

CourtUnited States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court of Eastern District of Kentucky
Writing for the CourtRobert E. Wier United States District Judge
Docket NumberNo. 6:19-CR-22-REW-HAI
Decision Date24 August 2020


No. 6:19-CR-22-REW-HAI


August 24, 2020


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Defendant Antoine Thompson, through counsel, moves to dismiss Count 2 of the Indictment. The Count charges him with murder while federally confined under a life imprisonment sentence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1118. DE #112 (Motion). Defendant argues that he fails to meet the required status element of § 1118 because the predicate life sentence was and is unconstitutional. The matter is fully briefed. DE ##122, 123.

Thompson's motion is long on high-minded rhetoric but painfully short on controlling law. Though his predicate D.C. conviction may be vulnerable (at least in part) to collateral attack, Defendant does not establish a right to challenge the conviction here. Further, he does not demonstrate that, under the Graham-Miller-Montgomery line, his conviction is not still a valid predicate in this context. For these reasons and on this record, the Court DENIES the motion.

1. Factual and Procedural Background

In April 2019, the grand jury returned an eight-count Indictment (DE #1), charging four individuals with various offenses related to the 2014 death of inmate Courtney D. Jones at United States Penitentiary (USP) McCreary in Pine Knot, Kentucky. The Indictment alleges that Thompson, aided and abetted by others, murdered Jones with premeditation, in violation of 18

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U.S.C. §§ 2 and 1111(a) (Count 1), and murdered Jones while under a life imprisonment sentence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2 and 1118 (Count 2). Counts 1 and 2 are both potentially capital crimes. The Indictment further charges Thompson with possessing contraband (a shank) within the facility (Count 6). Thompson appeared and pleaded not guilty to the offenses in July 2019. DE #59. The parties met with the Department of Justice's (DOJ) Capital Review Committee in mid-June 2020. See DE ##143, 144, 146 at 2. No decision concerning the penalty sought has yet issued, per the record.1

2. Review Standard

Rule 12 permits parties to raise by pretrial motion "any defense, objection, or request that the court can determine without a trial on the merits." Fed. R. Crim. P. 12(b). "Generally, motions are capable of determination before trial if they raise questions of law rather than fact." United States v. Jones, 542 F.2d 661, 664 (6th Cir. 1976). "Thus, a defense is 'capable of determination if trial of the facts surrounding the commission of the alleged offense would be of no assistance in determining the validity of the defense.'" Id. (quoting United States v. Covington, 89 S. Ct. 1559, 1561 (1969)). Further, the Court is "not limited to the face of the indictment in ruling on the motion to dismiss[,]" as "Rule 12 vest[s] the court with authority 'to determine issues of fact in such a manner as the court deems appropriate.'" United States v. Levin, 973 F.2d 463, 467 (6th Cir. 1992) (quoting Jones, 542 F. 2d at 665). Because Thompson's Rule 12 motion raises a discrete legal question, distinct from and requiring no inquiry into the case's factual merits, it is apt for pretrial resolution.

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3. Analysis

Against this backdrop, the Court evaluates Thompson's Count 2 dismissal request. Section 1118 provides: "A person who, while confined in a Federal correctional institution under a sentence for a term of life imprisonment, commits the murder of another shall be punished by death or by life imprisonment." 18 U.S.C. § 1118(a). The statute defines a "term of life imprisonment" as "a sentence for the term of natural life, a sentence commuted to natural life, an indeterminate term of a minimum of at least fifteen years and a maximum of life, or an unexecuted sentence of death." Id. § 1118(b). Thompson received a lengthy sentence from the D.C. Superior Court in 2000, 127 years to life on a series of charges punished consecutively; he was a juvenile at commission but tried as an adult. Thompson argues that the D.C. court and the government have recognized the sentence's unconstitutionality and anticipate re-sentencing. As such, he claims he was not serving a legitimate "term of life imprisonment" under the statute at the time of the alleged offense. It is undisputed that, on January 5, 2000, the D.C. Superior Court sentenced Thompson to an aggregate term (on 13 separate counts) of roughly 127 years to life imprisonment, for offenses related to a drive-by shooting that Defendant committed when he was 17 years old. See DE #112-1 (D.C. Judgment).2 The multi-count conviction evidently involved Thompson machine-gunning a crowd, wounding four.

All parties involved in the D.C. Superior Court case (Thompson, the prosecution, and the court)—as well as the former sentencing judge—have since agreed that the 127-life sentence was unconstitutional, under the Eighth Amendment, when imposed in Thompson's case. See DE #112-2 (Judge Milliken Letter); DE #112-3 (Government Response to Motion to Vacate) at 2; DE #112-5 (D.C. Hr'g Tr.) at 18 (acknowledging the court's intent to resentence Thompson, unless his

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pending collateral attacks, aimed at Brady and Napue issues, are successful).3 The parties and court evidently anticipate resentencing Thompson, should his convictions stand. The perceived unconstitutionality of Thompson's sentence stems from the line of Supreme Court authority distinguishing between juvenile and adult offenders, capping the penalties courts may constitutionally impose on the former class. See Roper v. Simmons, 125 S. Ct. 1183 (2005) (holding that execution of defendants that were juveniles at the time of their offenses is unconstitutional); Graham v. Florida., 130 S. Ct. 2011 (2010) (holding that the Eighth Amendment prohibits life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences for juvenile non-homicide offenders); Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012) (holding, per the Graham rationale, that LWOP sentences for all juvenile offenders—including homicide offenders—are unconstitutional); Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016) (clarifying that Miller announced a new, substantive rule of constitutional law that is retroactive). Thompson received the 127 year-life sentence in 2000 for crimes not involving homicide. According to this record, the conviction and sentence remain in place, although a D.C. challenge pends.

Thompson contends that his D.C. Superior Court penalty runs afoul of Graham and Miller and, as an unconstitutional LWOP sentence,4 cannot satisfy the status predicate in § 1118(a). He

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does not, however, cite any authority undergirding this interpretation of the § 1118(a) status element. In support of his key assertion that if a defendant "committed the alleged offense after already receiving the right to resentencing, they do not meet the 'relevant status' necessary to be charged under 18 U.S.C. § 1118[,]" Thompson cites only Rehaif v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 2191, 2194 (2019). DE #112 at 7. Rehaif, though, offers no assistance in this scenario—it holds that, in 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g) and 924(a)(2) prosecutions, the Government must prove that the accused both knowingly possessed a firearm and that, at the time he possessed it, knew that he had a disqualifying conviction. 139 S. Ct. at 2200. In other words, the decision extended the "knowing" qualifier to both the possession and the status elements of §§ 922(g) and 924(a)(2). Thompson does not here argue that he did not know he was serving a life imprisonment sentence at the time of the alleged offense conduct; moreover, even if he had so argued, that factual issue, and were that a matter at issue in the case, it would be improper for pretrial resolution.5

Defendant's central thrust seems to be an engrafted validity qualifier—that is, that the predicate "term of life imprisonment" aggravator within § 1118 must be constitutional to count. This has logical but not textual appeal. The § 1118 text itself includes no requirement that the underlying life sentence be valid, constitutional, or immune to collateral challenges. "In all cases of statutory construction, the starting point is the language employed by Congress. Where the statute's language is plain, the sole function of the courts is [to] enforce it according to its terms." United States v. Ca...

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