7th Circuit upholds convictions in attempted post office robbery

A videotaped interview brought to light mid-trial and the suppressed personnel record of a detective did not constitute violations under Brady v. Maryland, warranting a new trial for a man convicted of aiding and abetting firearm use during the attempted robbery of a Fort Wayne post office in 2012.

Julius W. Lawson was convicted for his role in the attempted robbery with an accomplice who was never identified. The two entered the post office during the day, donned masks and attempted to rob the place. The accomplice told a customer that he had a gun and pointed it at her stomach. Lawson jumped over the counter and attempted to take property, but the two left without taking anything. During the incident, Lawson’s cell phone fell out of his pocket and was left on the counter.

He raised three arguments on appeal. First, that there was insufficient evidence for the jury to find that a “firearm” was used. Second, that the jury was improperly instructed on the theory of aiding and abetting firearm use in light of Rosemond v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 1240 (2014), entitling him to a new trial. Third, that he should have a new trial because the government withheld evidence of an investigator offering a “bribe” to a witness and a police detective’s disciplinary record in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373  U.S. 83 (1963).

The 7th Circuit disagreed and left his convictions in place.

Lawson took issue with the post office customer’s testimony that the object pointed at her was a gun. She said she was familiar with guns and it looked like a Cobra .380, but she later testified that it could have been a well-made replica. The gun was never recovered. Her testimony was sufficient for a rational juror to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the object used was in fact a firearm, Judge Michael Kanne wrote, noting jurors were also free to discredit the defense’s attempts to show that it was a well-made replica.

A jury instruction given at Lawson’s trial was erroneous in light of Rosemond, but the plain error did not affect Lawson’s substantial rights. In Rosemond, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a conviction because the defendant did not have advance knowledge that a firearm would be used during a drug deal. In Lawson’s case, based on the evidence presented, it was unreasonable to think that the jury convicted Lawson because he learned of the firearm during the crime and intentionally facilitated its use only because it was too late to opt to walk away, Kanne wrote.

With regards to the Brady claims, the videotaped interview with a witness where it appears police offer her a “bribe” was disclosed mid-trial, but Lawson was able to review the tape with his counsel and call any witnesses. Because he was able to effectively make use of the interview, it was not suppressed under Brady.

And although the disciplinary record of the detective who lifted Lawson’s fingerprints off of the counter of the post office was found to be suppressed under the meaning of Brady, the evidence was not material, the appellate court ruled. Nothing in the personnel file suggests the detective would have mishandled evidence or attempted to frame Lawson.

The case is United States of America v. Julius W. Lawson, 14-3276.

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