7th Circuit reverses, remands two kidnapping enhancements

Three men who kidnapped and tortured a South Bend man have received different rulings from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed a 37-year prison sentence for one defendant and vacated 10-year firearm enhancements for the other two.

Ivan Brazier, Derek Fields and Lindani Mzembe attacked Adrian Harris as he was approaching his car outside of his home. The three men demanded money and beat Harris with their guns, accidently shooting him in the process.

The attackers then kidnapped Harris and took him to Brazier’s home where they bound, blindfolded, and gagged him and continued to torture him for several hours. They continued to  demand ransom money, but later dropped Harris in an alley when they feared he might die in Brazier’s home. Harris survived and was taken to the hospital, while police who were tipped off to the kidnapping later stopped and searched a vehicle in which Fields and Mzembe were passengers. The car contained a pair of bloody gloves, Harris’ car keys and a black mask. A search warrant for Brazier’s home was subsequently obtained.

In three separate trials, juries convicted Fields and Mzembe on charges of kidnapping, making a ransom demand, possessing a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, and being felons in possession of firearms. A jury convicted and sentenced Brazier to 444 months in prison on the kidnapping and ransom charges.

Fields, who received a 656-month sentence, and Mzembe, who received a 528-month sentence, were both given an additional 10-year sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) for discharging a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence. In a consolidated appeal, the 7th Circuit reversed, vacated and remanded the § 924(c) convictions and sentences for Mzembe and Fields in USA v. Lindani Mzembe, et al., 16-4258, 17-1060, 17-1412, 17-2268 & 17-2269, following recent precedent that established the underlying offenses do not qualify categorically as crimes of violence under the provision. The appellate court, however, affirmed Brazier’s conviction and sentence.

“Under the categorical method of analysis that applies to both the elements and residual clauses of the definition of crimes of violence in 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), Mzembe’s and Fields’ convictions for kidnapping and demanding ransom cannot support the mandatory consecutive sentences imposed under § 924(c),” Circuit Judge David Hamilton wrote for the panel. “The categorical method focuses on the essential elements of the counts of conviction, requiring courts in essence to focus on the least culpable conduct that could violate the relevant statutes, without considering the actual facts of the defendants’ conduct.”

The 7th Circuit rejected Fields’ and Brazier’s two sentencing guideline challenges, finding the Northern District Court did not clearly err in characterizing Harris’ injuries as life-threatening at sentencing.

“Given the denial of medical care to the gunshot wound, the beatings, Harris’s trouble breathing, and the blood found covering his body as well as at several scenes and on items found by investigators, the district court made the reasonable determination that Harris sustained life-threatening injuries,” the panel concluded as to Brazier’s four-level enhancement. “… If the district court had used a two- or three-level enhancement, that might also have been a reasonable application of the Guidelines, but the district court did not clearly err in applying four levels, particularly in light of the defendants’ denial of medical care to their kidnapping victim.”

It further rejected Fields’ appeal of his two-level guideline enhancement, finding that because his conviction and sentence under § 924(c) were reversed, the district court would not be prohibited from applying the enhancement upon resentencing.

The 7th Circuit additionally affirmed the district court’s order that Brazier, Fields and Mzembe pay restitution in the amount of $190,000 despite their poverty, finding no abuse of discretion in imposing “a substantial but likely symbolic order of restitution against all defendants.” It then ordered that the lower court adjust the restitution amount for Fields, which was $3,000 more than the amount set for Brazier and Mzembe.

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