By Alina Buccella
In a case published today by the Fourth Circuit, the court reviewed the appeals of two brothers, Jimmy and Janson Strayhorn, found guilty of armed robbery under the Hobbs Act and for brandishing a firearm in furtherance of a crime. The Hobbs Act requires that the robbery have an effect on interstate commerce. Because the brothers were accused of robbing a P & S Coin, and for conspiring to rob an All American Coins, their robbery and conspirary affected interstate commerce. The brothers were also charged with brandishing a firearm in furtherance of a crime in violation of 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(1). The elements of this offense require a showing that the defendants used or carried a firearm in relation to a crime of violence.
Janson Strayhorn appealed his guilty verdict by arguing that the state had insufficient evidence on which to base his verdict. The Fourth Circuit agreed in regards to his conviction for robbing the P & S Coin, but upheld his conviction for conspiracy to rob the All American Coins. The only basis on which the state had to convict Janson for the P & S robbery was a partial fingerprint on the duct tape used to gag the storeowner. An expert for the state testified that the partial fingerprint could have been placed there up to a year before the robbery. The court said that the “probative value of an accused’s fingerprints upon a readily movable object is highly questionable, unless it can be shown that such prints could have been impressed only during the commission of the crime,” and that it would be insufficient evidence on which to permit a jury to find Janson guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The court went further and enunciated a rule for future cases relying on a fingerprint on a movable object: “in the absence of evidence regarding when the fingerprints were made, the government must marshal sufficient additional incriminating evidence so as to allow a rational juror to find guild beyond a reasonable doubt.” This burden could be met with sufficiently incriminating circumstantial evidence.
In Janson’s case, there was one piece of evidence that could have been sufficiently incriminating – the fact that he was stopped by police while in possession the Colt Peacemaker that was stolen from P & S Coin during the robbery. While the unexplained possession of a stolen weapon can lead to the conclusion of guilt, the court found that the time between the robbery and Janson’s arrest, two months, was too tenuous to make such an inferential leap. Thus, the court reversed the trial court’s denial of Janson’s motion for summary judgment of acquittal on the P & S Coin robbery conviction.
However, Janson had no such luck in his charge of conspiracy to violate the Hobbs Act or 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(1). There was sufficient evidence on record that showed multiple phone calls between Jimmy and Janson planning to rob the All American Coins and to use the Colt Peacemaker to do so (read: irony). Janson was also stopped by police outside of the All American Coins, in the car described during the phone calls, with the Colt Peacemaker in the backseat. Thus the court upheld these convictions against Janson Strayhorn.
Jimmy Strayhorn was able to successfully appeal the sentence he received for his conviction for brandishing a firearm in furtherance of a crime because the trial court failed to instruct the jury that a finding that Jimmy “brandished,” as opposed to “used” or “carried,” the gun would raise the mandatory minimum sentence of his conviction. This is a new rule coming from the Supreme Court in Alleyne v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2151 (2013), and was not in effect during Jimmy’s trial. However, because this case came out during Jimmy’s pending appeal, the Fourth Circuit was required to take note of the new rule and apply it to his case. Lucky Jimmy.