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United States v. Warden

*fn*: February 21, 1979.


Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 75 C 3776 -- Hubert Will, Judge.

Before Tone, Circuit Judge, Wisdom, Senior Circuit Judge,*fn** and Bauer, Circuit Judge.

Author: Per Curiam

The appellant Rommel X. Wilson and co-defendant Ronald Burbank were charged in a three count indictment for the murder of a shoe store proprietor named Mihran Boghosian. Each count of the indictment was based on a separate theory of murder under Illinois law: (1) intentionally and knowingly killing Boghosian without lawful justification; (2) shooting Boghosian with the knowledge that such action created a strong possibility of death or great bodily harm; and (3) killing Boghosian in the course of committing a felony.

While neither defendant took the stand at trial, police officers testified to oral admissions that each had allegedly made concerning the facts of the incident. According to police testimony, Burbank admitted that he and Wilson had planned to rob the store, and that Wilson had shot Boghosian when the latter began throwing shoes at him. Wilson, on the other hand, allegedly stated that he had entered the store only to have his shoe repaired, and that he had shot Boghosian in self-defense when the proprietor threw the shoes.*fn1 In addition to the above statements, the state introduced into evidence a .380 Beretta that had been found in Wilson's apartment and that was stipulated to be the murder weapon. On the basis of this and other evidence, Wilson and Burbank were found guilty of murder and sentenced to 100 to 150 years imprisonment.

In his subsequent petition for a writ of habeas corpus, Wilson claimed that the admission of the non-testifying co-defendant's statement deprived him of the Sixth Amendment right to confront adverse witnesses. The district court found that the use of the statement violated the rule of Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123, 88 S. Ct. 1620, 20 L. Ed. 2d 476 (1968), and that its admission into evidence was not harmless error. On appeal, the state does not challenge the finding of a Bruton violation, but claims the district court erred on the question of harmless error.

In Schneble v. Florida, 405 U.S. 427, 92 S. Ct. 1056, 31 L. Ed. 2d 340 (1972), the Supreme Court declared:

"The mere finding of a violation of the Bruton rule in the course of the trial, however, does not automatically require reversal of the ensuing criminal conviction. In some cases the properly admitted evidence of guilt is so overwhelming, and the prejudicial effect of the co defendant's admission is so insignificant by comparison, that it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the improper use of the admission was harmless error."

Id. at 430, 92 S. Ct. at 1059. Thus, reversal is not required unless "there is a reasonable possibility that the improperly admitted evidence contributed to the conviction." Id. at 432, 92 S. Ct. at 1060.

In the case at hand, the district court noted that the jury could not have found the appellant guilty under a felony murder theory without the co-defendant's admission since there was no other evidence to establish the fact of robbery. The court then found that the felony murder theory might have impermissibly served as the basis for the jury's general verdict of guilty. That is, according to the court, the jury might have rejected the police testimony on Wilson's admission while accepting the officers' account of Burbank's statement. On this basis, then, the court concluded that the admission of the co-defendant's statement could not be viewed as harmless error.

We cannot agree, however, that there is a "reasonable possibility" that the jury accepted the officers' account of Burbank's admission, while rejecting the officers' account of Wilson's admission. For one thing, it appears from the record that the appellant did not introduce any evidence to contradict the police testimony on his alleged oral statement. Equally if not more significant, there were three officers who testified that Wilson made the admission and one of the officers Detective Fitzgerald also provided the major testimony on Burbank's statement. Accordingly, it would not have been rational for the jury to accept only the testimony on Burbank's admission in the absence of any contradicting evidence. And, as the Supreme Court has made clear, the judicious application of the harmless error rule

"does not require that we indulge assumptions of irrational jury behavior when a perfectly rational explanation for the jury's verdict, completely consistent with the judge's instructions, stares us in the face."

Schneble v. Florida, 405 U.S. at 431-32, 92 S. Ct. at 1059.

In this case, such a rational explanation for the jury's verdict does indeed "stare us in the face." According to uncontradicted police testimony, Wilson admitted shooting Boghosian when the latter threw shoes at him. The appellant did not claim that the shooting was inadvertent or accidental. On the contrary, he fully admitted that he shot Boghosian with an intent "to kill or do great bodily harm to that individual"*fn2 or, at the very least, with the knowledge "that such acts create a strong possibility of death or great bodily harm."*fn3 Furthermore, it is quite apparent from his admission that Wilson could not have reasonably believed that the shooting was "necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself."*fn4 Therefore, the shooting could not be justified under Illinois law on the grounds of self-defense. Finally, we note that the appellant's admission was fully consistent with the physical evidence in the case most notably, the murder weapon that was found in his apartment.

It is our conclusion, then, that "the "minds of an average jury' would not have found the State's case significantly less persuasive had the testimony as to (Burbank's) admission been excluded." Schneble v. Florida, 405 U.S. at 432, 92 S. Ct. at 1060. Accordingly, we find the judgment of the district court on this ...

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