United States v. Williams

Decision Date02 September 2016
Docket NumberC/w 13–3058,No. 12–3029,12–3029
Citation836 F.3d 1
Parties United States of America, Appellee v. Rico Rodrigus Williams, Appellant
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — District of Columbia Circuit

A.J. Kramer, Federal Public Defender, argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellant. Jonathan S. Jeffress, Assistant Federal Public Defender, entered an appearance.

Lauren R. Bates, Assistant U.S. Attorney, argued the cause for appellee. On the brief were Vincent H. Cohen, Jr., Acting U.S. Attorney, and Elizabeth Trosman and Stratton C. Strand, Assistant U.S. Attorneys.

Before: Henderson, Griffith, and Kavanaugh, Circuit Judges.

Concurring opinion filed by Circuit Judge Kavanaugh.

Opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part filed by Circuit Judge Henderson.

Griffith, Circuit Judge

Army Sergeant Juwan Johnson died in July 2005 after participating in a violent hazing ritual near Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. A jury convicted appellant Rico Williams of second-degree murder and witness tampering for his role in the hazing and in covering up information about Johnson's death. We affirm Williams's conviction for witness tampering, but we reverse his murder conviction.


Rico Williams was stationed at Ramstein Air Force Base as an Airman in the United States Air Force starting around 2001. He was discharged for medical reasons in May 2005 but remained at Ramstein as a dependent of his wife, Octavia, who was also an Airman. Williams was the leader, or “governor,” of a group that went by various names: “BOS,” Brothers of the Struggle,” or “Gangster Disciples.” (For simplicity, this opinion will refer to the group as the BOS.) The BOS was made up of members of the U.S. Army and Air Force at Ramstein but was not affiliated with the military. Expert evidence at trial connected the BOS to the Gangster Disciples, an American gang with roots in Chicago and individual “sets,” or local groups, around the world. Although members of the BOS often got into fistfights, the government's witnesses testified at trial that they did not engage in any other criminal activity.

The BOS did, however, regularly initiate new members by beating them up in a ritual known as a “jump-in.” During a typical jump-in, approximately six members of the BOS hit the initiate for about six minutes. Blows were to be landed only between the neck and the waist, and the initiate was forbidden from defending himself in any way. During the jump-in, the initiates were asked repeatedly if they wanted to proceed. If they said no, the initiation ended. After a jump-in, the new member would be hugged, kissed on the cheek, shown the BOS handshake, and taken out to celebrate. The BOS had performed around fifteen to eighteen jump-ins before Johnson's; in none had a new member been hospitalized or killed.

Johnson's jump-in took place on the night of July 3, 2005, at a brick-floored hut near the Ramstein base. Nicholas Sims, who was second in command to Williams in the BOS, testified for the government that nine people participated in Johnson's jump-in—more than the usual six. Sims recalled that Williams asked Johnson whether he wanted to begin. Johnson responded: “Hell yeah.” Williams asked him again, and he again replied: “Hell yeah.” Then Williams punched Johnson in the face. Johnson fell immediately, but stood again. Asked if he wanted to continue, he repeated: “Hell yeah.” Williams again punched him in the face. The group then began hitting him below the neck and above the waist. After two or three minutes, the group stopped while Williams and Sims, as the top-ranking members of the BOS, continued to pummel Johnson for the next minute. The other members then joined in again on the beating.

Another government witness, Themetrious Saraglou, similarly testified that Williams asked Johnson before the beating began if he was sure he wanted this,” and that Johnson said: “Hell yes.” Saraglou further testified that throughout the jump-in, when Johnson fell, he was asked: “Do you want this?” He “would reply and say, ‘yeah,’ or ‘hell yeah,’ or even ‘f*** yeah.’ Saraglou testified that by about halfway through the beating, Johnson wasn't as “hyper” as he had been at the beginning; he began responding simply “yeah,” instead of “hell yeah.” At some point, Johnson was held up as members continued to hit him repeatedly. At another point, members kicked Johnson while he was on the ground. No kicking had occurred at prior jump-ins. When the six minutes were up, the timekeeper had to yell “time” three times before the beating stopped. As a result, the jump-in lasted longer than usual.

Johnson never lost consciousness during the jump-in and though his mouth was bleeding, Johnson showed no other visible sign of serious injury when it ended. According to Sims, Johnson was exhausted and walking “like a drunk person, but by himself.” Saraglou testified that Johnson was walking slowly and said he was too sore to go out to celebrate with the others. Williams directed BOS members to take Johnson home and charged Florentino Charris with watching him overnight. Charris testified that around midnight, Johnson was slurring his speech and having trouble walking. Sometime later, Johnson asked to go to the hospital. Instead of taking him to the hospital, Charris relayed Johnson's request to another BOS member, who called Williams. Williams said not to take him. Charris followed Williams's direction, but told Johnson to let him know if he needed anything. Charris fell asleep in the room with Johnson. When he woke up in the morning, Johnson was dead.

An autopsy revealed injuries to Johnson's brain and heart. These “blunt force injuries” inflicted during the initiation caused Johnson's death, according to the government's medical expert at trial. By contrast, the defense's medical expert opined that the underlying cause of death was sickle-cell trait, a typically asymptomatic genetic condition, and that “superficial blunt impact injuries” were merely a “contributing” cause.

Two days following Johnson's death, Williams moved back to the United States. He was arrested in Virginia in February 2009 and charged with four counts in relation to Johnson's death, one of which the district court dismissed partway through trial. Of the remaining three, the first count was second-degree murder under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000 (MEJA), which provides federal jurisdiction over crimes committed by a civilian accompanying the Armed Forces outside the United States. See 18 U.S.C. § 3261 et seq.

The two other counts charged that Williams had tampered with witnesses in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(b)(3). One alleged that Williams made a threat to Sims and three other BOS members at a cookout the day after Johnson died. According to Sims, Williams told them that if questioned by the authorities, they were to say that Johnson died because “Turkish people jumped” him. Williams also threatened that they would be “basically done for” if they told the truth about Johnson's death. Sims testified that he took this threat to mean Williams would kill anyone who told the truth. Trial Tr. 36–37 (Oct. 25, 2010). The other tampering count alleged that Williams called Saraglou from the United States later that month and told him to order Sims to cover up a tattoo that signaled gang membership.

In November 2010, a jury found Williams guilty of second-degree murder and one count of witness tampering based on his threat to Sims (but not to any others). The jury acquitted Williams of the tampering count related to Sims's tattoo. In April 2012, Williams was sentenced to 22 years' imprisonment on the murder conviction and a concurrent 10 years' imprisonment for witness tampering. The court also ordered restitution of $756,000.

Williams moved for judgment of acquittal on the murder and witness-tampering counts. As for the murder count, he argued that the evidence was insufficient to establish that the requirements of MEJA were met or that he had the state of mind required for a murder conviction. The district court denied that motion. See United States v. Williams , 825 F.Supp.2d 117, 118–19 (D.D.C. 2011). Williams also moved for a new trial on the grounds that the government misstated the law during closing argument and that the district court made several incorrect evidentiary rulings. The district court denied these motions, too.

On appeal, Williams contends that the evidence was insufficient to convict him of murder. He also argues that a prosecutorial misstatement of law during closing argument substantially prejudiced his trial. He further challenges three evidentiary rulings by the district court and various other alleged prosecutorial errors. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and 18 U.S.C. § 3742(a).


We begin with Williams's challenges to the sufficiency of the government's evidence at trial.1 He maintains that the prosecution failed to prove that he was “residing with” a member of the U.S. military and that he was not a “national of or ordinarily resident in” Germany at the time the offense occurred, as required to establish federal jurisdiction under MEJA. 18 U.S.C. § 3267(2). Further, he argues that the evidence was insufficient to find that he had the requisite state of mind for second-degree murder.

Our review is highly deferential: we must accept the jury's verdict if “any rational trier of fact” could have found the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. United States v. Battle , 613 F.3d 258, 264 (D.C. Cir. 2010). We view the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, drawing no distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence, and “giving full play to the right of the jury to determine credibility, weigh the evidence and draw justifiable inferences of fact.” Id. Examined through this deferential lens, Williams's sufficiency-of-the-evidence arguments fail.


At trial, the government was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that...

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