Three Gary men intertwined in a major drug ring did not sway the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals from affirming their convictions and decadeslong sentences on Friday. However, the panel clarified that one defendant’s claim regarding his sentence was not barred, despite his waiver of the right to appeal.
Yahtzee Harris, Antonio Walton and Charles Gould were all involved in a drug conspiracy involving three drug houses in Gary.
Walton was at the center of the conspiracy, supplying crack cocaine to three people who ran the drug houses. One of those individuals was Harris, while Gould dealt drugs out of a different drug house.
A grand jury indicted more than 20 people associated with the conspiracy, and many pleaded guilty to drug charges, including Harris. Meanwhile, Walton and Gould went to trial and were found guilty of conspiring to distribute more than 280 grams of crack.
The Indiana Northern District Court had set trial for Gould and Walton on March 9, 2020, which coincided with the first major wave of COVID-19 infections in Indiana. The jury continued to hear evidence through the following week as Indiana businesses began to shutter.
The district court ultimately sentenced Walton to 30 years, Gould to 14 years and Harris to 19 years of imprisonment. All three defendants received additional terms of five years’ supervised release, then appealed.
Hearing their arguments in a consolidated appeal, the 7th Circuit affirmed the convictions and sentences for all three men in United States of America v. Yahtzee Harris, Antonio Walton, and Charles Gould, 21-1405, 21-1468 and 21-1991.
The 7th Circuit noted four distinct claims were raised in the consolidated appeal:
- The district court plainly erred by holding a trial for Gould and Walton during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The record contained insufficient evidence to support Gould’s conspiracy conviction.
- The district court committed reversible error in sentencing Walton.
- There was an impermissible inconsistency between Harris’ oral sentence and written judgment.
On the first claim, the appellate court concluded that neither Gould nor Walton’s conviction should be vacated because the district court held a trial during the pandemic. The trial ended March 17 — the same day that the Northern District of Indiana postponed all future trials and the day before all Indiana Northern District courthouses were closed to the public.
Although Gould and Walton relied on the timing of various events as evidence that the pandemic presumptively interfered with the jury’s deliberations, the 7th Circuit concluded the jurors carefully considered the evidence before rendering a verdict.
“To be sure, the pandemic would have been on the jurors’ minds in the waning days of the trial. But we see no evidence that they rushed a verdict to go home early,” Circuit Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi wrote. “… Because nothing at the time suggested that the pandemic stopped the jury from deciding the case ‘solely on the evidence before it,’ … and nothing suggests as much now, the district court did not plainly err when it decided to finish the trial.”
As to Gould’s conspiracy conviction, the 7th Circuit found his actions — including acting as a courier and occasional security — were sufficient for a reasonable jury to find a conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt.
It also found that the district court did not commit reversible error in sentencing Walton. The appellate court noted that the district court “carefully considered the applicable factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a),” and explained why the nature of the offense, Walton’s criminal history, his relative culpability compared to other defendants and the general lack of mitigating factors all warranted a lengthy sentence.
“Walton nonetheless contends that the district court created an unreasonable disparity when it sentenced him for a longer prison term than any of his codefendants,” Jackson-Akiwumi wrote. “…Walton’s disparity argument fails because only ‘unwarranted sentence disparities’ are impermissible.’”
As for the final argument, the 7th Circuit found Harris did not give up his sentencing challenge by pleading guilty, but he failed to identify an impermissible inconsistency between the oral sentence and written judgment. Resolving his appeal on the merits, it agreed with Harris that the reasoning in United States v. Tancil, 817 F. App’x 234 (7th Cir. 2020), was “sound.”
“At oral argument in this case, the government suggested that defendants like Tancil should instead use petitions for writs of mandamus to avoid their appeal waivers,” Jackson-Akiwumi wrote. “But the government does not explain why its interpretation of the appeal waiver would not also apply to mandamus petitions, nor why such petitions would be appropriate even though mandamus generally cannot be used as a substitute for the regular appeal process.
“… Accordingly, we conclude that the panel in Tancil got it right, and we join the Fourth Circuit in holding that a defendant’s waiver of his right to challenge his sentence does not bar him from seeking to have a district court’s oral pronouncement of a sentence imposed when that oral pronouncement conflicts with the written judgment.”
The 7th Circuit further declined to exercise the concurrent sentence doctrine, but found that Harris’ claim failed on the merits because the oral pronouncement did not contradict the written judgment.
Seeing no need to remand for clarification, the 7th Circuit affirmed the intended sentence as described in the written judgment.