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United States v. Morgan

May 6, 1997






Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois, Springfield Division.

No. 96 CR 30020 Richard Mills, Judge.

Before ESCHBACH, EASTERBROOK, and DIANE P. WOOD, Circuit Judges.

ESCHBACH, Circuit Judge.



Glaberise Morgan appeals his conviction of illegal possession of a firearm by a felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. sec. 922(g), claiming that the prosecutor made improper comments during closing arguments which violated his due process right to a fair trial. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. sec. 1291 and, for the reasons stated below, we affirm.

I. Background

During the small hours of an April morning, police officers on patrol in Springfield, Illinois, noticed defendant Morgan duck behind a house. Thinking this was suspicious, they began to follow him in their patrol car, traveling west on Clay street. As Morgan turned north and began to run up an alley, the officers noticed a long brown object protruding from his leg area, which he appeared to be carrying under his arm. After turning the car down the alley, Officer Carpenter got out and gave chase on foot, while his partner, Officer Bennett, remained in the patrol car. During the chase, Officer Carpenter lost sight of Morgan momentarily. When Officer Carpenter caught sight of Morgan again, he was crawling backwards on his hands and knees from a bush in front of a white house belonging to June Florence. After Officer Carpenter yelled for him to stop, he saw Morgan run from the house, sans brown object. Officer Carpenter pursued Morgan across the street, where Morgan unsuccessfully attempted to hide behind a car at Shane Mason's house. There, Officer Carpenter apprehended Morgan. Morgan had white flakes on his clothing and mud on his knees. Testimony indicated that the ground in the area of the bush was muddy and that the white paint on Florence's house was peeling. When Officer Bennett investigated the area, he found a long brown gun case containing a semi-automatic rifle by the bush in front of Florence's house. He also found a sawed-off 12 gauge shotgun.

The officers never actually saw Morgan with weapons, only the brown object. There were also no identifiable fingerprints on the weapons. However, Florence's neighbor, Shane Mason, testified that he saw Morgan dropping or throwing down objects that appeared to be weapons at Florence's house. Mason testified that he could not describe the objects he saw, but he knew that they were weapons from their shape and the sound that they made when they hit the ground. Mason also testified that a person would have to crouch down to get behind the bush, but when he saw Morgan, Morgan was standing next to it.

Because Mason's testimony constituted the government's only direct evidence of weapon possession, Mason's credibility was an obvious issue. The defense attacked Mason's credibility in several ways on cross examination. It pointed out inconsistencies between his testimony and that of the police. For example, at the time of the arrest, Mason came out to speak to the police. Officer Bennett recalled speaking to Mason briefly, but did not recall him saying anything about seeing Morgan with weapons. Mason testified that he did tell Officer Bennett this, but Officer Bennett was just not paying attention. Mason also testified that Morgan either dropped the weapons or threw them down. But the shotgun lay at the base of the porch at a 90 degree angle to the gun case. On cross examination, Officer Carpenter admitted that it was unlikely that the guns were just tossed into this position. There was also some inconsistency as to where Mason gained knowledge about guns. In addition, the defense brought out that Mason wore glasses and had memory problems stemming from a head injury. Finally, the defense attacked as incredible the fact that Mason could tell that the objects he saw Morgan drop were weapons, but could not describe the objects. Mason and Florence also testified that there is a crime problem in their neighborhood, particularly with guns and drugs. However, no one testified to seeing anybody else in the area that night.

Later that evening, Officer Carpenter saw Morgan in the holding cell speaking to another inmate. Although Officer Carpenter could not hear what was being said, he saw Morgan mimic a pumping action with his hands, the way one would pump a shotgun, and then shake his head as if to indicate "no." The shotgun found at the scene was a pump shotgun. Neither officer in the patrol car, nor the officer that transported Morgan to holding, told Morgan that they had found a pump shotgun. Although, it is possible that Morgan overheard Officer Bennett tell Officer Carpenter a weapon was found, Officer Bennett never indicated the weapon was a pump shotgun.

The defense strategy was to introduce a reasonable doubt that Morgan was the one who put the weapons behind the bush. The defense suggested that anyone could have put the weapons there, it was in fact a high crime area, and who knows, maybe someone else was there that night. The defense also attempted to discredit Mason's eyewitness testimony and stressed that without that, no one actually saw Morgan with a weapon.

During closing arguments, the prosecution first suggested that Mason had no reason to lie. Defense counsel countered that Mason in fact was lying, and proceeded to argue the reasons why the jury should not believe Mason. Defense counsel suggested that Mason was motivated to lie by his desire to help the police and get the neighborhood cleaned up. ...

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