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United States v. Bran

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

January 22, 2015

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff -- Appellee,
v.
JOSE ARMANDO BRAN, a/k/a Pantro, Defendant -- Appellant

Argued: September 19, 2014.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, at Richmond. (3:12-cr-00131-REP-1). Robert E. Payne, Senior District Judge.

ARGUED:

Mary Elizabeth Maguire, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellant.

Richard Daniel Cooke, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellee.

ON BRIEF:

Michael S. Nachmanoff, Federal Public Defender, Patrick L. Bryant, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellant.

Dana J. Boente, Acting United States Attorney, Alexandria, Virginia, Roderick C. Young, Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellee.

Before KING, SHEDD, and AGEE, Circuit Judges. Judge Shedd wrote the majority opinion, in which Judge Agee joined. Judge King wrote an opinion dissenting in part.

OPINION

Page 277

SHEDD, Circuit Judge:

A federal jury convicted Jose Armando Bran of five criminal counts relating to his involvement with the street gang La Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13. On appeal, Bran primarily argues that the district court erred by denying his motion for judgment of acquittal on Count 3 and by imposing a mandatory consecutive sentence for his Count 3 conviction. For the following reasons, we affirm.

I

Bran was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering (Count 1); murder in aid of racketeering (Count 2); use of a firearm during a crime of violence causing death to another (Count 3); conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering (Count 4); and maiming in aid of racketeering (Count 5). Counts 1, 2, and 3 arise from the murder of Osbin Hernandez-Gonzalez. Counts 4 and 5 arise from the attempted murder of Florintino Ayala. The district court sentenced Bran to 120 months for Count 1, mandatory life for Count 2, 120 months for Count 4, and 360 months for Count 5, all to run concurrently, and life for Count 3, to run consecutively to the sentences for Counts 1, 2, 4, and 5.

Page 278

Generally, the government presented evidence at trial tending to establish that Bran was the leader of the Richmond Sailors Set, which is a violent clique of MS-13. During Bran's involvement with the Sailors Set, the clique was a criminal enterprise engaged in drug trafficking, money transfers to MS-13 leadership in El Salvador, witness tampering, violent physical assaults -- including the attempted murder of Ayala and the murder of Hernandez-Gonzalez -- and other racketeering activities.

Bran's principal argument relates to his conviction and sentence on Count 3. In Count 3, the government charged Bran with violating three criminal statutes: 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A), 18 U.S.C. § 924(j)(1), and 18 U.S.C. § 2. Section 924(c)(1)(A) " prohibits the use or carrying of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence or drug trafficking crime, or the possession of a firearm in furtherance of such crimes," and a violation of the statute " carries a mandatory minimum term of five years' imprisonment," United States v. O'Brien, 560 U.S. 218, 221, 130 S.Ct. 2169, 176 L.Ed.2d 979 (2010), which must run consecutively to any other sentence, Abbott v. United States, 562 U.S. 8, 23, 131 S.Ct. 18, 178 L.Ed.2d 348 (2010). Section 924(j)(1) provides that a person who causes the murder of another through the use of a firearm in the course of committing a violation of § 924(c) shall " be punished by death or by imprisonment for any term of years or for life." Section 2 provides that a person " is punishable as a principal" if the person: (a) " aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures" the commission of a criminal offense; or (b) " willfully causes an act to be done which if directly performed by him or another" would be a criminal offense.

Pertinent to Count 3, the government presented evidence tending to establish that in July 2011, Bran ordered prospective MS-13 members Jeremy Soto and Luis Cabello to murder Hernandez-Gonzalez, whom Bran believed to be an informant for a rival gang. Bran further instructed Michael Arevalo, another Sailors Set member, to ensure Soto and Cabello successfully killed Hernandez-Gonzalez. Bran gave Soto and Cabello a firearm to commit the murder. Pursuant to Bran's order, Arevalo, Soto, and Cabello led Hernandez-Gonzalez to a path along the James River, where they shot him four times using Arevalo's firearm, stole his cellphone, and left him to die which he did soon thereafter. Soto and Cabello were later initiated into Sailors Set for their participation in the murder.

Regarding Count 3, the district court instructed the jury that the government had to prove three elements beyond a reasonable doubt: (1) that Bran aided and abetted the murder of Hernandez-Gonzalez; (2) that during and in relation to commission of the murder, Bran knowingly aided or abetted the use, carriage, or discharge of a firearm; and (3) that the firearm caused the death of Hernandez-Gonzalez. The court further instructed the jury that Bran could be convicted on Count 3 under the theory of aiding and abetting. Bran did not object to the jury instructions.

On the verdict form, the district court titled Count 3 " Use of a Firearm During a Crime of Violence Causing Death to Another." J.A. 1311. The court instructed the jury to return a general verdict on Count 3 and, if the jury determined Bran was guilty, to then answer a three-part special interrogatory. The interrogatory asked the jury to state whether Bran aided, abetted, counseled, commanded, induced, or caused another to: ...


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