United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
January 29, 2018, the United States filed its First Motion in
Limine to Prohibit Discussion of Applicable Penalties (ECF
No. 99). Defendant responded that he does not intend to
present the jury with evidence of his own sentencing
exposure. Def.'s Resp. 1, ECF No. 125. Defendant,
however, seeks to cross-examine co-defendant Juanita Williams
on the plea deal she struck with the Government, including
quantifying how much she has to gain from cooperating.
See Id. at 3-4. The Government rejects this request
to quantify the benefits Ms. Williams received, contending
that cross examination should only be permitted in vague
terms like “significant” benefit and that
discussion of the sentencing numbers is prejudicial because
it would suggest to the jury what sentence Defendant might
face if convicted. The Court, having considered the motion,
briefs, arguments, evidence, and otherwise being fully
advised, will grant the United States' motion to prohibit
discussion of applicable penalties faced by Defendant and
will limit cross-examination of Ms. Williams to vague terms
of the substantial benefit she may receive from the plea
agreement, as described herein.
Juanita Williams was initially charged with sex trafficking
in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1591(a) and (b), and aiding
and abetting under 18 U.S.C. § 2, the same charge Mr.
Henry faces in Count I. Compare Indictment, ECF No.
13, with Second Superseding Indictment, ECF No. 86.
The initial charge carries with it a mandatory minimum term
of imprisonment of 15 years. United States' Reply 2, ECF
No. 135. Ms. Williams entered a cooperation plea agreement
with the Government in which she pled guilty to a single
count of “Accessory after the Fact, ” in
violation of 18 U.S.C. § 3, a charge that carries no
mandatory minimum. The Government agreed it would drop the
sex trafficking charge. Ms. Williams has not yet been
to the Defendant, Ms. Williams gave statements to the United
States, and following the plea agreement, Ms. Williams's
version of events changed dramatically. Defendant asserts
that his Sixth Amendment right to cross-examine Ms. Williams
on the substantial benefits she received for the Government
that create an incentive to mislead or lie to the jury.
Defendant specifically requests either a stipulation or the
ability to cross-examine Ms. Williams concerning the possible
numeric reduction of her plea deal - from a minimum sentence
of at least a 15-year incarceration and registration as a sex
offender to a reduced sentencing exposure of 18 to 27 months
per the guideline range. See Feb. 6, 2018 Hr'g
Tr. 219:24-220:6. Defendant argues cross-examination of the
magnitude of the break Ms. Williams received is critical to
Government responds that the numeric evidence is of marginal
relevance and is outweighed by the risk of unfair prejudice
and jury nullification concerns. Furthermore, the Government
asserts that there exists ample cross-examination material to
demonstrate bias without the need to question Ms. Williams on
the concrete numbers of her potentially reduced sentence.
Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment guarantees a
defendant the right to confront the witnesses against him,
including “exposure of a witness' motivation in
testifying.” Delaware v. Van Arsdall, 475 U.S.
673, 678 (1986) (quoting Davis v. Alaska, 415 U.S.
308, 316-17 (1974)). Judges, however, have wide discretion to
impose reasonable limits on cross-examination based on
concerns including prejudice, confusion of the issues, and
relevance. Id. at 679. In limiting
cross-examination, a court must determine whether the jury
had sufficient other information before it, without the
excluded evidence, to analyze possible biases and motivations
of the witnesses. United States v. Gault, 141 F.3d
1399, 1403 (10th Cir. 1998); United States v.
Chandler, 326 F.3d 210, 219 (3d Cir. 2003) (quoting
Brown v. Powell, 975 F.2d 1, 4 (1st Cir. 1992));
United States v. Wright, 866 F.3d 899, 906 (8th Cir.
2017) (“A limitation on cross-examination does not
violate the Sixth Amendment unless the defendant shows that a
reasonable jury might have received a significantly different
impression of the witness's credibility had defense
counsel been permitted to pursue his proposed line of
cross-examination.”) (quoting United States v.
Dunn, 723 F.3d 919, 934 (8th Cir. 2013)). As to
cross-examination of cooperating co-defendants, the critical
question is whether the defendant has an opportunity to
cross-examine the witness about her subjective understanding
of her bargain with the government, because that
understanding is what is relevant to the witness's bias.
Chandler, 326 F.3d at 220 (quoting United States
v. Ambers, 85 F.3d 173, 176 (4th Cir. 1996)).
circuit courts are divided on whether a defendant may
question a cooperating co-defendant about details of their
potential sentences and plea agreements. See United
States v. Lanham, 617 F.3d 873, 884 (6th Cir. 2010)
(noting “circuit split” on this issue and citing
cases). The courts, however, have yet to impose a categorical
right to inquire into the concrete terms of a cooperating
witness's agreement with the government. United
States v. Mussare, 405 F.3d 161, 170 (3d Cir. 2005)
(“We have found no cases holding that such a
categorical right exists, and we decline to so hold.”).
the courts determine how much detail of a plea agreement to
admit on a case-by-case basis, but with some circuits more
likely to find an abuse of discretion in prohibiting concrete
terms of the sentence than others. Compare United States
v. Larson, 495 F.3d 1094, 1105 (9th Cir. 2007)
(“[W]hile the Government has an interest in preventing
a jury from inferring a defendant's potential sentence,
any such interest is outweighed by a defendant's right to
explore the bias of a cooperating witness who is facing a
mandatory life sentence….The potential maximum
statutory sentence that a cooperating witness might
receive, however, is fundamentally different from the
mandatory minimum sentence that the witness
will receive in the absence of a motion by the
Government.”); Chandler, 326 F.3d at 223
(holding that government's interest in preventing jury
from inferring defendant's possible sentence and avoiding
jury nullification was outweighed by the defendant's
constitutional right to confront cooperating witnesses with
evidence of magnitude of benefit they received by
cooperating); United States v. Cooks, 52 F.3d 101,
103-04 (5th Cir.1995) (district court erred when it precluded
defendant from exploring effect of cooperating witness's
potentially severe sentence on his motivation for
testifying), with United States v. Walley, 567 F.3d
354, 360 (8th Cir. 2009) (holding that court did not abuse
its discretion in prohibiting defense from asking cooperating
witness about potential five-year mandatory minimum sentence,
but permitting question whether witness faced “the
possibility of a significant sentence in this case”);
United States v. Luciano-Mosquera, 63 F.3d 1142,
1153 (1st Cir. 1995) (holding that “information about
the precise number of years” witness believed he would
have faced absent his cooperation with government was
“outweighed by the potential for prejudice by having
the jury learn what penalties the defendants were
facing”); United States v. Cropp, 127 F.3d
354, 358 (4th Cir.1997) (affirming trial court's
prohibition of questions about cooperating witnesses'
specific penalties at stake, including questioning as to
specific sentencing guideline ranges and maximum total
Court has significant concerns that inquiry into concrete
numbers might result in the jury nullifying the verdict if it
knew the severe sentence Mr. Henry is facing upon conviction.
Inquiry into Ms. William's sentencing range implicates
the same concerns because her initially indicted charge is
the same as Count I against Mr. Henry. To avoid prejudicing
the Government and unnecessarily confusing the jury, the
Court will not permit evidence that Ms. Williams was facing
the same charge as Defendant, the specific penalties at
stake, or inquiry into guideline sentencing-ranges. Cf.
Cropp, 127 F.3d at 359 (“Against whatever slight
additional margin of probative information gained by
quantitative questions, we must weigh the certain prejudice
that would result from a sympathetic jury when it learns that
its verdict of guilty will result in sentences of ten and
twenty years in prison.”).
Court will permit Defendant to inquire that Ms. Williams
entered into a plea agreement with the Government; in
exchange for pleading guilty, the Government dropped a charge
and substituted a new charge with a significantly reduced
statutory sentencing range; Ms. Williams is awaiting
sentencing; what Ms. Williams' understanding is
concerning whether she expects to get a “significantly
reduced”/ “substantially reduced” /
“far less severe” sentence; whether she has
received or expects to receive certain benefits in exchange
for her testimony, including the withdrawal of additional
charges or consideration for a substantial/significant
sentence reduction. Cf. United States v. Wilson, 408
F. App'x 798, 802-803 (5th Cir. Nov. 15, 2010) (holding
it was not abuse of discretion to curtail cross examination
into concrete numbers concerning magnitude of benefit).
IS THEREFORE ORDERED that the United States'
First Motion in Limine to Prohibit Discussion of Applicable
Penalties (ECF No. 99) is
GRANTED and cross-examination of
co-Defendant Juanita Williams into the ...