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United States v. Snyder

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 25, 2017

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Kelton Snyder, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued May 25, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 15-CR-20045 - Colin S. Bruce, Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Bauer and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          Hamilton, Circuit Judge.

         Paige Mars was murdered late in the evening of Sunday, April 5, 2015, in the sanitation district of Decatur, Illinois. Her body was found the next day near the wastewater lagoons. She had been shot five times with a shotgun at point-blank range. She was nineteen years old. Earlier that weekend, Mars had driven the getaway car for two men who robbed a convenience store. One of those men was defendant Kelton Snyder. Shortly after the robbery Snyder and his accomplice became nervous that Mars would disclose their crime to the police, so they decided to murder her. After conspiring together, Snyder's partner lured Mars out to the sanitation district and executed her. Snyder was not present at the time.

         The Decatur Police investigated at first, though federal officials later took over and charged Snyder with a series of federal crimes for the convenience store robbery and for conspiring to murder a federal witness in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1512. Snyder pled guilty to three charges involving the robbery itself: Hobbs Act robbery, 18 U.S.C. § 1951(a); brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence, § 924(c); and being a felon in possession of a firearm, § 922(g). He went to trial on the § 1512 count for conspiring to murder a federal witness. The jury found him guilty. The district court sentenced Snyder to two consecutive life terms plus ten- and twenty-year terms concurrent to the § 1512 life sentence.

         Section 1512 defies easy summary. It covers forms of witness tampering ranging from corrupt persuasion up to murder. As applied to Snyder, the statute required the government to prove that if Paige Mars had not been murdered, she was reasonably likely to have communicated with a federal law enforcement officer about the robbery. On appeal, Snyder argues that the government's evidence was insufficient to prove that federal nexus element under the standard adopted in Fowler v. United States, 563 U.S. 668 (2011). Snyder also challenges the district court's sentencing guideline calculations, and he disputes the substantive reasonableness of his life sentence on the § 924(c) charge. We agree that the government failed to offer sufficient evidence to satisfy Fowler, so we vacate Snyder's § 1512 conviction and its associated mandatory life sentence. We otherwise affirm Snyder's sentence, including the life sentence on the § 924(c) charge.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         In an appellate challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting a criminal conviction, we view all evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979); United States v. Resnick, 823 F.3d 888, 893 (7th Cir. 2016).

         A. The Convenience Store Robbery and the Murder of Paige Mars

         On Friday, April 3, 2015, Snyder and accomplice Matthew Higgins-Vogt robbed a Circle K convenience store in Decatur, Illinois. The men wore masks and carried shotguns that Snyder had helped acquire. During the robbery, they tied up an employee and a customer, and Snyder held the employee at gunpoint. They stole around $700 and some liquor. Nineteen-year-old Paige Mars, who had no prior criminal record, drove the getaway car.

         Hours after the robbery Snyder and Mars began texting and expressing romantic interest in each other. The interest soured by the next day, however, when Mars heard that Snyder was unstable and had beaten his past girlfriends. Snyder attempted to reassure her by saying that he only "beat dumb bitches, not women." Snyder pressed Mars to tell him who had told her this information. He became angry when she would not tell him.

         The next day, Sunday, April 5, 2015, Snyder became nervous that Mars might talk with the police about the Circle K robbery. He voiced these concerns to his ex-girlfriend and one of his friends, saying that he might have to "smoke her." That day Snyder called Higgins-Vogt. A witness overheard Snyder say that he "needed to talk to [Higgins-Vogt] about Paige." Snyder and Higgins-Vogt texted that evening, and at 8:24 p.m. Snyder said he was coming over to Higgins-Vogt's home.

         Soon after Snyder's visit, Higgins-Vogt called Mars. He called her at 9:46 p.m. and again at 10:31 p.m., and minutes later Mars texted back "here." At approximately 11:00 p.m., a deputy sheriff near the Decatur sanitation district heard gunshots. Shortly after that, Higgins-Vogt and Snyder communicated via Facebook and telephone. The following morning, April 6, a mechanic at the water treatment plant was on his inspection rounds and found Paige Mars' body. She had been shot five times with a shotgun fired at near contact or very close range.

         Later that day Snyder told a friend that the "loose end" from the Circle K robbery had been "taken care of." That person notified the police, and Snyder was promptly arrested. When the police told Snyder he was under arrest for robbery, he responded, "Just robbery?"

         B. Prosecution, Conviction, and Sentence

         Snyder and Higgins-Vogt were initially charged in state court with armed robbery. Those charges were dismissed, however, after federal officials decided to pursue federal charges. On September 3, 2015, a federal grand jury returned a superseding indictment charging Snyder with five federal crimes: Hobbs Act robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1951(a) (Count 1); brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) (Count 2); possessing a firearm as a felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) (Count 3); conspiring to kill a witness in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1512(a)(1) and (k) (Count 4); and murder in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 924(j)(1), 924(c), 1111, and 2 (aiding and abetting), and Pinkerton v. United States, 328 U.S. 640 (1946) (Count 5). The government later agreed to dismiss Count 5. Snyder pled guilty to Counts 1, 2, and 3, but he proceeded to trial on Count 4, conspiracy to murder a federal witness.

         One central issue at trial was the federal nexus needed to convict Snyder for conspiring to murder a witness. In Fowler v. United States, 563 U.S. 668, 677 (2011), the Supreme Court held that § 1512 requires the government to show that, if the witness tampering had not occurred, there was a "reasonable likelihood" that the witness would have communicated with federal officers about the underlying federal offense. In this case, that means the government needed to show a "reasonable likelihood" that Paige Mars would have communicated with a federal officer-not only state or local officers-if she had not been murdered.

         After the close of the government's case, the district court denied Snyder's Rule 29 motion for judgment of acquittal, and the court denied his renewed motion at the close of evidence. The court said that it was "ridiculous" to believe the Circle K robbery would have been prosecuted in federal court if Mars had not been murdered, but that there was still a reasonable likelihood that Mars would have communicated with a federal officer because Decatur Police share office space with the FBI and the officers regularly collaborate on cases. In other words, the court found evidence of a reasonable likelihood that Mars would have communicated with an FBI employee who would have assisted with the state investigation and prosecution of the Circle K robbery. The court submitted the case to the jury, which found Snyder guilty as charged.

         Snyder's § 1512 conviction carried a mandatory life sentence. The discussion at sentencing focused on the sentences for Snyder's other three convictions stemming directly from the robbery. Those sentences were certainly worth disputing because of the federal nexus issue hanging over the § 1512 conviction. The revised presentence investigation report, which the district court adopted in full, provided a total offense level of 43 based on the murder cross-reference. Snyder's criminal history category was IV, though the guideline range at offense level 43 is life in prison for any criminal history category. The ...


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