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United States v. Atkins

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Tampa Division

December 11, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
DAJOR ATKINS

          ORDER

          Charlene Edwards Honeywell United States District Judge

         This matter comes before the Court upon Defendant's Renewed Motion for Judgment of Acquittal (Doc. 256), Defendant's Motion for New Trial (Doc. 258), and the Government's responses thereto (Doc. 264; Doc. 273). In the Renewed Motion for Judgment of Acquittal, Defendant requests that the Court vacate his conviction on Count III, brandishing a firearm during and in furtherance of a crime of violence, and enter a judgment of acquittal because there was insufficient evidence before the jury that Defendant had advance knowledge that a firearm would be used in the commission of the substantive robbery offense. The Government disagrees, arguing that sufficient evidence existed such that a reasonable jury could have found that Defendant was aware of the firearm prior to the commission of the robbery.

         In the Motion for New Trial, Defendant requests that the Court vacate his convictions and order a new trial because the Government impermissibly bolstered the credibility of its cooperating witness. The Government again disagrees, arguing that a new trial should not be granted because no impermissible bolstering occurred. The Court, having considered the motions and being fully advised in the premises, will deny both motions.

         I.BACKGROUND

         A federal grand jury returned a second superseding indictment charging Defendant Dajor Atkins with four counts stemming from a June 2, 2018 robbery of an AT&T store located in Clearwater, Florida. Doc. 169. The second superseding indictment charged Defendant with (I) conspiring to interfere with commerce by robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1951; (II) interfering with commerce by robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1951(a); (III) brandishing a firearm during and in furtherance of a crime of violence in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(ii); and (IV) possessing a firearm despite being a convicted felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). Id. The indictment also sought various forfeitures in the event of conviction. Id. The case proceeded to trial on August 26, 2019.

         The following evidence was presented at trial. Riley Harris (“Harris”) committed three armed robberies of AT&T stores prior to June 2, 2018. Doc. 261 at 3:11-3:15. In at least two of those three robberies, Harris utilized the assistance of another person. In the first robbery, Harris had a woman named Cornika Wright serve as a lookout and getaway driver. Doc. 260 at 42:15-42:19, 48:12-48:21, 60:1-60:2. In the third robbery, Harris had a woman named Alonia Perkins serve as a getaway driver. Id. at 111:15-111:23, 113:4-113:10, 116:25-117:2.

         In mid or late May 2018, Harris told Defendant about the third robbery he had committed, including how it happened and how much money he made. Doc. 261 at 25:10-25:25, 26:16-26:23. However, Harris did not mention to Defendant that he had used a gun in that robbery. Id. at 35:19-35:24.

         Defendant told Harris of his interest in participating in a future robbery so that Defendant could make money as well. Id. at 26:2-26:10. Harris told Defendant that he would need Defendant to drive. Id. at 26:11-26:15. Harris also told Defendant that Harris needed to get some things before then-”a rental car, a new gun, stuff like that”-and that Harris would let Defendant know when he was ready. Id. at 27:6-28:8. Within a week or two, Harris obtained a rental car, a new gun, and a mask. Id. at 26:16-26:23, 29:5-29:8, 30:7-30:19. Harris then told Defendant that he was ready. Id. at 30:15-30:23.

         On Saturday, June 2, 2018, Harris picked Defendant up from his house. Id. at 33:6-33:16. Harris had brought with him a change of clothes, gloves, a mask, and a gun, which he had kept in one or more bags. Id. at 34:8-34:17, 35:16-35:18; 95:7-95:25. Defendant took over the driving and Harris moved to the back seat to change clothes and get ready. Id. at 33:11-34:15.

         The men backed the vehicle into a parking space in front of an AT&T store. Id. at 38:11-38:20. From the car, Harris changed his clothes, put on gloves and a mask, and took the gun out of a bag. Id. at 39:11-39:21. Inside the car, Harris cocked the gun and it made an audible sound. Id. at 39:19-40:5.

         Harris exited the car with a duffel bag. Id. at 40:6-41:2, 95:20-96:9. Harris kept the gun concealed while on the sidewalk, taking the gun out when he entered the store. Id. at 40:21-41:4, 96:2-96:10. Defendant kept a lookout while Harris was in the store and the two stayed in communication through cell phone. Id. at 44:14-44:25, 45:16-45:25. Harris told Defendant when he was ready to leave the store. Id. at 47:4-47:16. Before exiting the store, Harris put the gun in a bag. Id. at 96:21-96:25. Harris exited the store and climbed into the trunk of the car with his bags, including a bag that held the gun. Id. at 47:4-47:16, 50:18-50:25, 96:25-97:2.

         The men had previously agreed to drive back to where Defendant lived following the robbery. Id. at 42:20-43:9. Defendant drove away from the store and onto a bridge. Id. at 47:15-47:21, 48:10-48:14. Harris and Defendant later pulled over, changing the license plate and taking stickers off to make the car less identifiable as the one that left the parking lot of the store. Id. at 61:6-61:23.

         Sometime after Defendant and Harris were arrested, Harris entered a plea agreement. Doc. 260 at 5:16-6:15, 7:8-7:25. Harris then began cooperating with investigators, in particular, FBI special agent James Bucenell (“Bucenell”). Doc. 273-1 at 3:14-4:8, 62:25-63:13. Harris offered Bucenell information about the four armed robberies, including the names of his accomplices and from where he had purchased firearms. Id. at 63:14-63:17; Doc. 273-2 at 5:7-5:15, 6:12-6:25, 9:4-9:15.

         At trial, Harris testified about all four of the armed robberies. Doc. 260; Doc. 261. After Harris testified, the Government elicited testimony from Bucenell about his investigation of the robberies. Bucenell discussed the information Harris had offered and how the investigative leads resulting from that information turned out. On several occasions, the Government asked Bucenell on direct examination whether his further investigation “corroborated” or “matched” the information Harris had offered or whether the “investigative leads pan[ned] out.” Doc. 273-1 at 63:13-64:1, 66:5-67:23; Doc. 273-2 at 4:2-9:15. Defendant objected several times to the Government's line of questioning.

         Defendant first objected on the basis of relevancy. Doc. 273-1 at 64:9. The Court called counsel to sidebar and asked how much longer the Government intended to question Bucenell about his investigation of Cornika Wright so that the Court could determine when to release the jury for the evening. Id. at 65:17-65:21. The Court overruled Defendant's objection and instructed the Government to finish the current testimony related to Cornika Wright so that the Court could then stop and send the jury home. Id. at 65:17-65:24. The following relevant exchanges then took place late that afternoon and the following day.

BY MR. GORDON [for the Government]:
Q Special Agent Bucenell, you can answer the question. Did you review the cell site records?
A Yes, I did.
Q Did they corroborate what Riley Harris told you?
A Yes.
Q Did you find other information that corroborated what he told you about Cornika Wright?
A Yes. Yes.
Q Did you investigate her employment history?
A Yes, I did.
Q Did her employment history match what Riley Harris told you?
A Yes, it did.
Q Was she employed at an AT&T store?
A She was actually employed at the Parrish store.
Q Same store that he robbed?
A Yes.
MS. HARDIN [counsel for Defendant]: Objection. Bolstering.
THE COURT: Well, I'm going to sustain the objection. I think it goes beyond our conversation at sidebar, so is there any further inquiry regarding this area?
BY MR. GORDON:
Q Did you do anything else or did you find anything else that corroborated what he said about Cornika Wright beyond what you described so far?
MS. HARDIN: Same objection.
MR. GORDON: Just trying to ask the question that Your Honor ...

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