By Eric Jones
On January 20, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the criminal case United States v. Moore. Wendy Annette Moore and Christopher Austin Latham appealed their convictions for participating in a murder-for-hire plot, the target of which was Latham’s estranged wife. Moore and Latham argued on appeal that the district court constructively amended the indictment against them through erroneous jury instructions, and improperly admitted both hearsay and character evidence. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the convictions.
The Murder-For-Hire Plot
Latham was a banking executive in Charleston, South Carolina, and was dating his assistant Moore. Moore and Latham allegedly hired Moore’s ex-husband Samuel Yenawine and his cellmate Aaron Wilkinson to murder Latham’s estranged wife Nancy Cannon. Wilkinson was stopped by police as he drove through Charleston. Wilkinson quickly revealed that he and Yenawine were involved in the plot, and that the murder had not yet occurred.
Although Wilkinson originally believed that he and Yenawine were setting out to purchase drugs, once on the road to Charleston from Louisville, Kentucky, Yenawine informed Wilkinson that they were in fact on the way to kill Cannon. Once in Charleston, Yenawine purchased a pay-as-you-go cell phone, which he used to communicate to a then-unnamed woman that would meet them at the hotel. Moore met the men, rented them a room, and gave the men $5,000 cash. Yenawine later met with Moore a second time, returning with a manila envelope containing a “hit packet” with information about Cannon and her children, the plot to murder her, printed maps with handwritten notes, Cannon’s schedule and routine, and photographs of Cannon, her residence and her vehicle. The items in the “hit packet” were linked to Latham and Moore through handwriting analysis. Investigators also linked several of the items to Latham and Moore’s office computers and individual printers, and to their cell phones. Cell phone tower evidence and bank records further linked Latham and Moore to the murder plot.
The Jury Instructions
After a jury trial, Latham was convicted of the use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder for hire, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1958(a). Moore was convicted of conspiracy to use interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder for hire, solicitation of murder for hire, the use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder for hire, and illegal firearm possession. Latham was sentenced to 120 months in prison, and Moore to 180 months.
The federal murder-for-hire statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1958(a), enumerates two distinct and alternative prongs: the “travel prong” and the “facilities prong.” Under the travel prong, the Fourth Circuit explained, a defendant may be convicted if she “travels in or causes another . . . to travel in interstate or foreign commerce.” Under the facilities prong, a defendant may be convicted if she “uses or causes another . . . to use the mail or any facility of interstate commerce.” Moore and Latham were being charged under the travel prong. In its closing instructions, the district court read the indictment to the jury, advising them that the defendants were only being charged under the travel prong. As it went on to describe § 1958(a), however, the court made two references to the uncharged facilities prong, indicating that a defendant may also be guilty of that prong. Latham and Moore both filed post-trial motions arguing that the district court had constructively amended the indictment against them by mentioning the facilities prong.
Constructive Amendment of the Indictment
As the Fourth Circuit explained, a constructive amendment occurs when the government or the court “broadens the possible bases for conviction beyond those presented by the grand jury.” The Court further explicated that the “key inquiry is whether a defendant has been tried on charges other than those listed in the indictment.” Rather than rely solely on the jury instructions, however, the Fourth Circuit clarified that a reviewing court should “consider the totality of the circumstances—including not only the instructions and the indictment but also the arguments of the parties and the evidence presented at trial—to determine whether a jury could have ‘reasonably interpreted’ the challenged instructions as ‘license to convict’ on an unindicted charge.” Although the Court conceded that in some circumstances a reference to the facilities prong could constitute an impermissible constructive amendment, it held that in this case it was not. First, the bulk of the jury instruction properly tracked the indictment and omitted any mention of the facilities prong. Additionally, the court’s opening instructions to the jury described only the travel prong. The court also gave the jurors a copy of the indictment, which included only the travel prong, and expressly cautioned that the defendants were “not on trial for any act or crime not contained in the indictment.”
Furthermore, the entirety of Latham and Moore’s defense, as well as the entirety of the prosecution, focused on the travel prong and neither party mentioned the facilities prong. The Fourth Circuit also noted that “the term ‘facilities of interstate commerce’ was never defined for the jury, and the government never suggested that . . . was a basis for convicting the [defendants].” Thus, based on the totality of the circumstances at trial, the Fourth Circuit held that no juror could have reasonably believed that they were free to convict the defendants under the uncharged facilities prong.
The Hearsay and Character Evidence
At trial, the government called Yenawine’s new cellmate to testify that, before committing suicide after arrest, Yenawine told him about the murder-for-hire plot. The district court allowed these statements to enter under the “statement against interest” exception to hearsay, found in Fed. R. Evid. 804(b)(3). As Yenawine had no reason to lie to his cellmate, and the defendants could not establish that the district court abused its discretion in finding sufficient corroboration of Yenawine’s statements, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision.
Moore and Latham also argued on appeal that certain character evidence about Yenawine’s prior conviction for arson and his alleged involvement in murder was improperly admitted. As these objections were not made at trial, however, the Fourth Circuit examined the record only for “plain error” that “seriously affect[ed] the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of [the] judicial proceedings.” The Court moved quickly past these arguments, stating that “Moore and Latham have not established that any of the testimony to which they object was admitted in ‘error,’ let alone ‘plain error.’” In fact, as the Court pointed out, “some of the testimony was elicited by the [defendants] themselves.” Furthermore, “even assuming, arguendo, the existence of plain error, [the Fourth Circuit] could not find the ‘serious effect’ on the ‘fairness, integrity, or public reputation’ of judicial proceedings required.”
The Fourth Circuit Affirmed the Convictions
Because the totality of the circumstances of the trial indicated that no reasonable juror could have been confused by the jury instruction, the Fourth Circuit held that no constructive amendment of the indictment had occurred. Additionally, because the evidentiary objections could be disposed of “briefly,” the Court affirmed Latham’s and Moore’s convictions.