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United States v. Jackson

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

October 8, 2019

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Dennis D. Jackson, also known as Little D, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued September 25, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. No. 4:17-cr-40052 - J. Phil Gilbert, Judge.

          Before Flaum, Sykes, and Scudder, Circuit Judges.

          Flaum, Circuit Judge.

         Dennis Jackson was convicted of multiple drug charges and sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment. He appeals his convictions on the grounds that the district court erred in allowing certain recordings and testimony into evidence; he also challenges his sentence, seeking a reduction in light of the First Step Act. For the reasons stated below, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

         I. Background

         In 2017, the Southern Illinois Drug Task Force and the Illinois State Police began investigating Jackson and some of his associates, suspecting their involvement in a gangland shooting. The investigation led to evidence suggesting that Jackson was dealing drugs in Harrisburg, Illinois. The investigating agents supplied a confidential source ("CS") with funds to make several controlled purchases from Jackson, each of which was recorded via an audiovisual device on the CS's person. After the CS completed three controlled purchases, agents obtained a warrant and raided Jackson's residence. The search turned up methamphetamine, other drugs, cash, scales, and multiple loaded firearms.

         Jackson was arrested and several superseding indictments followed. He proceeded to trial on six counts: (1 & 2) distributing a mixture and substance containing methamphetamine; (3) distributing five grams or more of actual methamphetamine; (4) possessing with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of actual methamphetamine; and (5 & 6) two weapons charges. Before trial, the government filed an information establishing that Jackson had twice pleaded guilty to felony drug charges. Taking his prior convictions into account, he faced, if convicted, a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years on count 3 and life imprisonment on count 4.

         As Jackson's trial approached, the CS escaped from the jail where he was being held on unrelated charges. The CS was returned to custody only two days before Jackson's trial began, and the government determined not to call him as a witness. Instead, the government filed a motion in limine seeking a pretrial ruling on the admissibility of the recordings showing the CS purchasing drugs from Jackson. The district court granted the motion, reasoning that:

[a]ssuming the Government lays a proper foundation, does not use the CS's statements for their truth, and satisfies all other evidentiary requirements, the Court will not exclude the recordings on Confrontation Clause grounds or any of the other ground discussed above. Further, it will give appropriate limiting instructions to the jury when the recordings are played and at any other reasonable time requested by a party.

         In a pretrial hearing, the district judge noted that were Jackson convicted on count 4, a mandatory life sentence would apply, and he would have no discretion to modify it. Jackson stated that he understood and, contrary to his lawyer's advice, wished to proceed to trial rather than accept a plea bargain.

         At trial, two investigators provided relevant testimony. Special Agent Jayson Murbarger and Inspector Glenn Rountree participated in the stings of Jackson; between them, they searched the CS for contraband, cash, or weapons before each controlled sale, provided him with cash to buy the drugs, and affixed audiovisual recording devices on his person. Murbarger testified that he watched the CS during each sale and observed him placing the purchased drugs in the agents' vehicle. The agents provided similar testimony discussing the chain of custody of physical evidence and the integrity of the recordings made by the CS.

         The recordings of the drug transactions were played for the jury over Jackson's objections. The court provided the following instructions:

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the government will now present recorded conversations and video recordings. This is proper evidence that you should consider together with and in the same way you consider other evidence in this case. ...
The recordings contain statements and questions by the confidential source in this case. You may consider statements or questions of the confidential source on the recordings only to help you understand what the defendant said in response to-in response or did in reaction to those statements or questions. You may not consider the confidential source's statements or questions for the truth of what the confidential source said. The confidential source's statements and questions standing alone are not evidence of the defendant's guilt.

         After the recordings played uninterrupted, Inspector Roun-tree testified as to what he saw and heard on the recordings.

         Following a four-day trial, on July 12, 2018, a federal jury in the Southern District of Illinois found Jackson guilty of counts 1 through 4 but was unable to reach a consensus on counts 5 and 6. The government subsequently moved to dismiss counts 5 and 6 without prejudice.

         On November 28, 2018, the district court entered judgment and sentenced Jackson as follows: concurrent terms of 360 months for counts 1 and 2, a concurrent term of 480 ...

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