Submitted: January 15, 2019
from United States District Court for the Western District of
Missouri - Springfield
LOKEN, GRASZ, and STRAS, Circuit Judges.
Hall and Wesley Coonce killed Victor Castro-Rodriguez after
brutally beating him. A jury found Hall guilty of
first-degree murder, see 18 U.S.C. § 1111(b),
and following the presentation of a number of aggravating and
mitigating factors, returned a death sentence. Hall appeals
only his sentence and challenges, among other issues, the
aggravating and mitigating factors the jury considered, the
evidence it heard, and the instructions it received. We
three men were serving federal sentences in a mental-health
ward at a medical center for federal prisoners in
Springfield, Missouri, when Hall and Coonce attacked
Castro-Rodriguez. As Hall admitted, they had discussed the
crime two or three days in advance. Hall has said that
killing calms him and that if Castro-Rodriguez had not been
available, he "would have randomly selected another
inmate" to kill instead.
to the testimony of one inmate, Hall lured Castro-Rodriguez
by promising him money if he would pretend to be a hostage.
Hall allegedly told him that if he would go along, prison
officials might agree to give them additional privileges,
including cable television, in exchange for his release.
After Castro-Rodriguez agreed, Hall and Coonce followed him
into his cell, where they made him lie on his back, bound his
hands and feet, stuffed a rag in his mouth, and blindfolded
him. Once he could no longer move or call for help, Coonce
repeatedly kicked him and stomped on his neck. Hall then
stood on his throat. After several minutes, Hall stepped off,
checked for a pulse, and punched his stomach "to see if
he would react." An autopsy revealed that
Castro-Rodriguez died from suffocation caused by compression
of his larynx, although he also had internal bleeding,
scrapes, and bruises from the repeated blows to his head,
neck, and chest.
and Coonce were tried together. The jury found them both
guilty after deliberating for less than three hours. At a
joint sentencing hearing, the jury heard evidence about
various aggravating and mitigating factors. After
deliberating again-this time into a second day-the jury
unanimously recommended a death sentence for both of them.
The district court accepted the jury's recommendation and
first question is whether the district court abused its
discretion by trying Hall and Coonce together. See United
States v. Ortiz, 315 F.3d 873, 898 (8th Cir. 2002). Both
initially objected to a joint trial, but after the jury found
them guilty, Hall withdrew his objection to a joint
sentencing hearing. His position now is that the refusal to
sever the proceedings at the guilt phase allowed the
jury to hear evidence that unfairly prejudiced him during the
trial is "often preferable when the joined
defendants' criminal conduct arises out of a single chain
of events," because it gives the jury a chance "to
assign fairly the respective responsibilities of each
defendant." Kansas v. Carr, 136 S.Ct. 633, 645
(2016) (citation omitted). This case is a good example. Hall
and Coonce agreed ahead of time to murder Castro-Rodriguez.
Once they entered his cell together, Hall tied him up, Coonce
took the lead in assaulting him, and then Hall dealt the
fatal blow by standing on his throat. They acted side by side
at every step, so it was logical for the district court to
allow "their fates [to be] determined by a single
jury." Id. at 646.
sure, holding a joint trial resulted in the same jury hearing
both Coonce's guilt-phase defense that Hall was the
driving force behind the crime and the government's case
for the death penalty. This made the proceeding unfair,
according to Hall, because Coonce's theory
"logically supported" and supplemented the
government's penalty-phase argument that Hall would
likely be violent in the future.
these arguments overlapped to some degree, Hall cannot
establish that Coonce's guilt-phase evidence "so
infected the sentencing proceeding with unfairness as to
render the jury's imposition of the death penalty"
unconstitutional. Id. at 644-45 (citation omitted).
In arguing that he was less blameworthy than Hall, Coonce
never suggested that Hall, as the alleged mastermind, would
do something similarly violent in the future. Nor did the
government connect those dots. Its theory was simpler: Hall
was dangerous because he repeatedly said he would commit
crimes and had a lengthy history of threatening violence.
See infra Part IV.B (addressing the admissibility of
the government's evidence). For us to accept Hall's
theory that the joint trial unfairly prejudiced him would
require "an exercise in speculation, rather than
reasoned judgment." Romano v. Oklahoma, 512
U.S. 1, 14 (1994). And speculation is not enough. See
Carr, 136 S.Ct. at 646.
next group of challenges focuses on the aggravating and
mitigating factors presented to the jury. In determining
whether a death sentence was "justif[ied]," the
jury's task during the penalty phase was to
"consider" whether the aggravating factors
"sufficiently outweigh[ed]" the mitigating factors.
18 U.S.C. § 3593(e); see also id. § 3592
(identifying potential aggravating and mitigating factors).
federal death-penalty statute divides aggravating factors
into two categories: the listed ones that the jury
"shall" consider and those "other aggravating
factor[s]" that it "may" consider.
Id. § 3592(c). Despite this open-ended
language, Hall claims that one unlisted factor, grave
indifference to human life, should never have been submitted
to the jury. He points out that the jury already
considered his mental state once in determining that he was
eligible for the death penalty, so doing it again improperly
counted the same factor twice. The premise is correct, but
his conclusion is not.
in the federal death-penalty statute says that the jury can
only consider a defendant's mental state once. To the
contrary, the statute contemplates the possibility that the
jury will do so at least twice, first when determining
whether the death penalty is on the table at all and again
when evaluating the aggravating factors presented by the
government. Compare id. § 3591(a)(2) (listing
the various mental states giving rise to death-sentence
eligibility), with id. § 3592(c)(5) (requiring
a "grave risk of death"); id. §
3592(c)(6) (committing the offense in an "especially
heinous, cruel, or depraved manner"); id.
§ 3592(c)(9) (demonstrating "substantial planning
and premeditation"); id. § 3592(c)(16)
(having the intent to kill or attempting "to kill more
than one person in a single criminal episode"). And some
of the factors even seem to overlap with one another, further
weakening Hall's double-counting theory. See,
e.g., id. § 3592(a)(1) (acting with a
"significantly impaired" capacity to
"appreciate the wrongfulness" of the conduct);
id. § 3592(a)(6) (carrying out the offense
"under severe mental or emotional disturbance").
Hall's argument, in other words, is contrary to the
statute, which constructs a two-stage process with
overlapping inquiries, see id. §§
3591(a)(2), 3592(a), (c), and is inclusive when it comes to
the factors that a jury may consider, see id. §
challenges another aggravating factor for a different reason.
He argues that the government did not provide enough evidence
for the jury to find that he killed Castro-Rodriguez in an
especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner. See
id. § 3592(c)(6).
explaining this factor, the district court told the jury that
the killing was heinous if it was "extremely wicked or
shockingly evil"; it was cruel if Hall "intended to
inflict a high degree of pain"; and it was depraved if
Hall "relished the killing or showed indifference to
[Castro-Rodriguez's] suffering." The government also
had to show "serious physical abuse," which the
instructions defined as "a significant or considerable
amount of injury or damage to [Castro-Rodriguez's]
body." See 18 U.S.C. § 3592(c)(6)
(requiring "torture" or "serious
physical abuse"); see also United States v.
Montgomery, 635 F.3d 1074, 1095-96 (8th Cir. 2011)
(defining "serious physical abuse" to include
"inflict[ing] suffering . . . above and beyond that
necessary to cause death" (internal quotation marks and
to Hall's suggestion, the government's evidence was
sufficient to find that the killing was heinous, cruel, or
depraved, and that it involved the infliction of serious
physical abuse. The primary source of the government's
evidence was Hall's initial statement to investigators
shortly after the murder. In it, he recounted how he had
bound Castro-Rodriguez's hands and feet, stuffed a rag in
his mouth, blindfolded him, watched Coonce assault him, and
then stood on his throat until he stopped breathing. He also
acknowledged the senselessness of the crime, explaining that
if Castro-Rodriguez had not been available, he "would
have randomly selected another inmate and killed him"
instead. The medical examiner, after describing the injuries
and confirming that they were consistent with ...