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United States v. Parker

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

September 19, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Appellee,
v.
SHAYNE PARKER, Defendant, Appellant.

         APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS [Hon. F. Dennis Saylor IV, U.S. District Judge]

          John A. Amabile for appellant.

          Alexia R. De Vincentis, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom William D. Weinreb, Acting United States Attorney, was on brief, for appellee.

          Before Thompson, Selya, and Barron, Circuit Judges.

          THOMPSON, Circuit Judge.

         PREFACE

         Sometime on or around March 22, 2014 - all dates here are in that year, by the way - Shayne Parker committed two legal no-nos: he possessed 50 rounds of 38-caliber ammo while being a convicted felon, and he transported a SCCY Model CXP 9-mm pistol into his state of residence without a license. Or so a federal grand jury in Massachusetts alleged in an indictment charging him with violating 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and (a)(3). Parker pleaded not guilty. But a trial jury found him guilty as charged. And a district judge sentenced him to 60 months in prison and 3 years of supervised release.

         Parker now appeals only his conviction, arguing that the judge triply erred - first, by not individually voir diring prospective jurors about their feelings toward race; then, by admitting evidence of other gun and ammo purchases (what we will call "other-acts evidence"); and, finally, by instructing the jury on willful blindness.[1] Concluding that none of his challenges rises to the level of reversible error, we affirm.

         HOW THE CASE GOT HERE[2]

         On March 21, Parker drove with Ronald Scott from Massachusetts (their state of residence) to New Hampshire and checked into the Keene Inn in Keene, New Hampshire. The room was registered in Parker's name. There they hooked up with Mitchell Riddell, a drug customer of Scott's. And Riddell talked to Scott - in Parker's presence - about buying guns.

         The trio got together again the next day, March 22, this time joined by Melanie LaMott. Turns out LaMott could legally buy firearms in the Granite State and had agreed with Riddell to act as a straw buyer.[3] Parker and Scott are African-American; Riddell and LaMott are white - why this matters will become clear in the next section of this opinion.

         The foursome first went to the Alstead Gun Shop in Alstead, New Hampshire. They checked out some handguns but left because Scott became uncomfortable with someone in the shop.

         The gang then headed to the Sporting and Hunting Depot in Charlestown, New Hampshire, with Parker driving Scott in a Subaru and Riddell driving LaMott in a Toyota. After they all entered the store, LaMott bought a bunch of firearms, one of which was a SCCY Model CXP 9-mm pistol. Satisfied with the purchases, the group went to LaMott's Keene apartment, where Scott gave Riddell and LaMott crack cocaine as a partial payment for their services. Parker and Scott handled the firearms and said how pleased they were with them.

         The quartet set out for Boston, Massachusetts - Riddell and LaMott in Riddell's car, and Parker and Scott in the Subaru - but stopped en route at Dick's Sporting Goods Store in Keene so Scott and LaMott could buy ammunition, including the 38-caliber ammunition. Once in Boston, Parker and Scott examined the guns and ammo. And Scott gave Riddell and LaMott the rest of the drugs they were owed for helping out.

         At some point, the police caught wind of what was going on. And Parker's arrest, indictment, and conviction followed apace. As we said, his brief on appeal advances three claims of error - though all are without merit, for reasons we explain in the pages that follow.[4]

         INDIVIDUAL VOIR DIRE

         Background

         After Parker elected to go to trial, the parties geared up to select an impartial jury. As part of that process, Parker's counsel asked the judge if he planned on conducting any individual voir dire. "Only at sidebar, if someone raises [a] hand" in response to a group question, the judge said - though, he stressed, "we're not going to do individualized voir dire in the sense of . . . doing it in the lobby or doing it segregated." But Parker's lawyer believed the judge's proposed approach would not do enough to uncover potential jurors holding racist views. And so he pushed for individual voir dire, arguing to the judge as follows:

• As a statistical matter, the criminal-justice system treats African-Americans much harsher than others.
• The race of the cooperating straw buyers added a "cross-racial component" to the case.
• The charged ammo/firearm "offenses" also "play[ed] into a stereotype."
• One could not "realistically expect jurors to respond in the audience in front of all of the[] other prospective jurors to questions about whether they are biased or prejudiced against people based on their race."
• And individual voir dire would better help him assess a potential juror's demeanor and thus better help him decide whether he or she had answered the judge's questions truthfully.

         Relying on these reasons - offered without any evidence (like, say, a social-science study) to back them up - counsel asked the judge to ask these five questions (the bracketed numbers are ours):

[1] Do you have any feelings or opinions about black people that would cause you to question your ability to be impartial in evaluating the evidence in this case?
[2] Would the fact that Mr. Parker is a black man make it more difficult for you to decide a verdict in his favor than if he were white?
[3] Do you believe that black men are more likely to commit a crime than others?
[4] Have you had any experiences with black people that might make you unable to be fair and impartial in this case?
[5] Can you honestly assure the court that the race of the defendant will not affect your ability to be fair and impartial?

         Responding to counsel's request, the judge said that it is "by no means clear" that "people will be inhibited from simply raising their hands in a crowd full of strangers without uttering a word for fear of being shamed into admitting racial prejudice, " but "will freely admit racial prejudice to a judicial officer in a black robe with lawyers and court reporters and law clerks present." So he denied the call for individual voir dire. "This is a relatively routine case, " the judge then stressed - "not a death penalty case, not a murder case, not a highly publicized case." Because "[t]here's no racial angle to it" - "like a victim and a perpetrator being of different races" - and because "[n]othing about it particularly w[ould] evoke a strong emotional response or a racially charged response, " the judge saw no reason "to take the highly unusual and time-consuming and resource-consuming step of individual voir dire." Asked by the defense to reconsider, the judge adhered to his ruling - despite counsel's insistence that Donald Trump's recent victory in the Massachusetts Republican primary had "engendered serious racial polarization" and that individual voir dire would add only "a couple of extra hours" to the process.

         The judge proceeded to empanel the jury. And per his usual practice, the judge told the prospective jurors that "[i]t is very important that you give truthful responses." And then the judge said:

Ladies and gentlemen, when I ask a question if you think your answer is yes or your answer is yes, please raise your hand. If you raise your hand, I'm going to call you over here to the sidebar one-by-one. I'll find out what the issue is. I might explore it with you a little bit.

         The judge started voir dire off with some basic icebreaking questions. For instance, after mentioning the names of the potential witnesses, the judge asked, "Do any of you know or are you related to . . . or acquainted" with "any of those people?" A few potential jurors raised their hands, just like the judge had asked them to do. And after calling them to sidebar, the judge asked some probing follow-up questions.

         Before turning to the issue of racial bias, the judge noted that "it can be difficult sometimes for people to talk openly about [race] or to be honest or open about whatever feelings they may have on [that] subject[], but your duties and obligations as citizens and as potential jurors require you to be completely honest with me." Having said that, the judge asked the group if anyone had "any feelings of any kind that may affect your ability in any way to be fair and impartial in the trial of an African-American defendant because of his race." No one raised a hand.

         At sidebar, Parker's lawyer restated his position that group questions answered with a show of hands did not suffice because "there's no way anybody is going to come forward on that." "All right, " the judge said, "[o]ther than individualized voir dire, is there any particular question you want me to ask that I have not asked to the group?" Defense counsel identified two, which the judge posed to the group: "[D]o any of you believe that it is more likely that the defendant is guilty of the crime because he is African-American?" And "[h]ave any of you had an experience of any kind with African-Americans that would affect your ability to be a fair and impartial juror in the trial of this case?" No one raised a hand in response to either question. The judge empaneled a jury of twelve, plus two alternates. And as seated, ...


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