May 25, 2017
from the United States District Court for the Central
District of Illinois. No. 15-CR-20045 - Colin S. Bruce,
Wood, Chief Judge, and Bauer and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.
Hamilton, Circuit Judge.
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
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.
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.
Factual and Procedural Background
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).
The Convenience Store Robbery and the Murder of Paige
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.
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.
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
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.
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?"
Prosecution, Conviction, and Sentence
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.
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.
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.
§ 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 ...