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United States v. Jones

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

December 2, 2016

United States of America, Plaintiff- Appellee
Charles James Jones, Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: October 20, 2016

         Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Minnesota - St. Paul

          Before MURPHY, GRUENDER, and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges.

          MURPHY, Circuit Judge.

         Shalonda Clark and defendant Charles Jones lived together on the White Earth Indian Reservation. Their house burned down while they were both intoxicated and Clark died. Jones was thereafter convicted by a jury of second degree murder. The district court[1] sentenced him to 324 months imprisonment. Jones now appeals the district court's exclusion of expert testimony and photographs, the admission of several statements he made to police officers, and the application of a vulnerable victim sentencing enhancement. We affirm.


         Shalonda Clark and Charles Jones had a history of domestic violence and were addicted to methamphetamine. Eventually they were reduced to living in their living room with an electric stove for heat. In December 2013 Jones acquired a bottle of butalbital, a migraine drug for which he had no prescription. After he and Clark took a large number of these pills, a fire started in the house they shared and spread rapidly. Clark died on the living room couch.

         After the fire had started, Jones walked to the nearby home of the Sip family from where a family member called the police. When an officer responded, he was invited inside the Sip house where he found Jones in the living room. He asked Jones how the fire had started and where Clark was at the time. Jones told the officer that Clark had been sleeping on the couch and that he had thrown a burning blanket over her. He explained that he was "sick of the shit she put me through" and that she had "been nothing but cruel to me." Jones then walked into the kitchen and tried to stab himself. Two officers were able to stop him and put him in handcuffs. While he was led to their police car Jones told them, "You finally fucking got me." When an officer asked him what he meant, Jones responded, "That's all you're getting. I hope I get the max."

         The next day officers tried to question Jones after reading him his Miranda rights. They told him that Clark was dead and they needed to talk. Jones responded that he had nothing to say and that he wanted to end the interview. Nevertheless, he went on to volunteer that "she's a wicked bitch and that's it." Jones later unsuccessfully moved to suppress these statements after he had been charged with second degree murder.

         Fire investigator R. Paul Bieber appeared at trial as an expert witness for Jones. Bieber's initial disclosure had stated that he would testify about the area where the fire started, whether it had been intentionally lit, and whether the government expert's investigation had been influenced by cognitive bias. After the government moved to exclude Bieber's testimony, the defense submitted two amended and more detailed disclosures. The district court decided to admit Bieber's testimony about the origin and cause of the fire, but not about the potential cognitive bias of the government's expert which had not been mentioned in either of Bieber's amended disclosures. Jones was convicted of second degree murder and was sentenced to 324 months imprisonment after the district court applied a vulnerable victim enhancement. Jones appeals.


         Jones argues that the district court committed reversible error by strictly limiting Beiber's testimony to the opinions he had provided in his final expert disclosure under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 16(b)(1)(C). The parties dispute the standard of review. The government argues that since Jones had not provided an offer of proof for Bieber's excluded testimony, that exclusion cannot be reviewed or at least only for plain error.

         The record shows, however, that Jones did make an offer of proof on Bieber's excluded testimony and thus preserved the issue for appellate review. Jones argues that we should review de novo the exclusion of his expert testimony because it denied him the right to present a defense. Our longstanding precedent makes clear, however, that the standard is abuse of discretion. See United States v. Coutentos, 651 F.3d 809, 820 (8th Cir. 2011). Rule 16(b)(1)(C) required Jones to disclose a written summary of the testimony Bieber intended to offer, describing Bieber's "opinions, the bases and reasons for those opinions, and [his] qualifications." Fed. R. Crim. P. 16(b)(1)(C). If a party fails to make an adequate expert disclosure, the district court may "prohibit that party from introducing the undisclosed evidence." Fed. R. Crim. P. 16(d)(2).

         Bieber provided his first expert disclosure to the government on February 13, 2015. In that disclosure, Bieber stated that he would testify about what caused the fire, where it originated, whether it had been started intentionally, and "the presence and influence of domain-irrelevant information" such as cognitive bias which might have affected the government expert's investigation. After the government moved to preclude Bieber's testimony, he provided an amended disclosure on February 24, which was the day before the pretrial conference. In that disclosure, Bieber stated that he planned to testify that the cause and specific origin of the fire could not be determined scientifically and that any "conclusions as to the intentional ...

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