United States v. Young, No. 07-2729-cr (2d Cir. October 8, 2009) (Jacobs, Walker, Leval, CJJ)
Defendant Laval Farmer was a member of the Bloods street gang, charged with a 2001 gang-related murder and and 2002 gang-related attempted murder, along with various associated firearms offenses. At least three years before the charged offenses he acquired the unfortunate nickname of “Murder.” At his trial the court allowed witnesses to refer to him by that name and the prosecutors to repeatedly use it in highly inflammatory ways. As a result, the court of appeals vacated the attempted murder conviction, but let the murder conviction stand based on the strength of the evidence.
In July of 2001, members of a rival gang, the Crips, assaulted two members of Farmer’s Bloods crew. Farmer took it upon himself to avenge the beatings. Believing that a fourteen-year-old boy wearing blue clothing was a Crip, Farmer shot and killed him. It turned out that the boy was a popular fourteen-year-old, and not a gang member.
A few months after the shooting, Farmer moved to Pennsylvania and associated with another Blood, Jaquel Patterson. Farmer and Patterson had a strained relationship; Patterson frequently disparaged Farmer’s Bloods bona fides, and there were occasions where Patterson did not honor the Bloods’ code of behavior during incidents involving Farmer. In July of 2002, Farmer decided to teach Patterson a lesson. He entered Patterson’s bedroom with a gun, forced Patterson to apologize and plead for his life, then shot him in his body, legs, arms and face. Patterson survived.
At trial, Farmer moved to strike the nickname “Murder” from the indictment and preclude any reference to him by that name at the trial. The district court denied these requests, and Farmer was referred to as “Murder” throughout the trial. The government referred to him by that name at least three times in its opening, and several times more in its summation, suggesting that he was trying to “live up to his name of Murder.” Worse still, in the rebuttal summation the government used the name nearly thirty times, repeatedly tying it to Farmer’s offense conduct.
On appeal, the circuit was highly critical of the government’s conduct.
It first surveyed the case law on the use of nicknames, holding that a trial court need not preclude the use of a suggestive nickname where “it help[s] to identify the defendant, connect him to the crime, or prove other relevant matter, or when coherent presentation of the evidence entail[s] passing reference to it,” as long as the name’s probative value outweighs its potential for prejudice.
Here, it was error for the district court to permit the government to elicit testimony of Farmer’s nickname, except for references by witnesses who knew him by that name. Farmer’s identity was not at issue and his nickname had “no legitimate relationship to the crimes charged.” Rather, the name strongly suggested “a propensity to commit particularly heinous crimes, including the very offenses charged in the indictment.”
But the more serious problem here arose from the “prosecutors’ frequently repeated, gratuitous invocation of Farmer’s nickname in their addresses to the jury, uttered in a context that, in effect, invited the jurors to infer that the defendant had earned the nickname among his gang colleagues as a a result of his proclivity to commit murder.” Here, the government’s conduct amounted to a “flagrant abuse.” Even so, however, the court did not grant Farmer a new trial on every count.
The 2001 murder was “supported by such overwhelming evidence that conviction was a certainty.” For the 2002 attempted murder, however, the evidence was “far less conclusive.” The shooting was not witnessed, and it was plausible that Farmer acted in self-defense. Alternatively, there was a view of the evidence that Farmer shot Patterson to settle a personal score, not to elevate his status within the Bloods, as required by the statute of conviction. The court accordingly vacated the counts associated with the attempted murder and remanded the case for a new trial on those counts only.