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United States v. Zierke

August 24, 2010

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, APPELLEE,
v.
GARY ZIERKE, JR., APPELLANT.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Smith, Circuit Judge

Submitted: March 9, 2010

Before SMITH, BENTON, and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges.

A jury found Gary Zierke Jr. ("Zierke") guilty of conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846 ("Count 1"), and distribution of methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and (b)(1) ("Count 2"). Zierke filed objections to the presentence investigation report (PSR) objecting, in part, to the quantity of drugs for which he was found responsible and the resulting base offense level, as well as a three-level increase for his role in the offense. The district court*fn1 denied Zierke's objections to the PSR and sentenced him to 360 months' imprisonment as to Count 1 to run concurrent to three years of supervised release as to Count 2. On appeal, Zierke argues that the district court committed five errors: (1) admitting a recorded telephone conversation; (2) admitting statements Zierke made to law enforcement agents; (3) finding that there was sufficient evidence to establish that he was involved in a conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine; (4) finding that he was responsible for 574 grams of methamphetamine; and (5) imposing a three-level leadership enhancement. We disagree with each of Zierke's contentions and affirm the district court's judgment.

I. Background

Zierke was charged in a two-count indictment with conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine between October 1, 2007, and April 17, 2008, in violation of § 846, and distribution of methamphetamine on or about February 14, 2008, in violation of §§ 841(a)(1) and (b)(1). Pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b), the government filed a notice of intent to introduce evidence at trial. Specifically, the government outlined its intent to introduce evidence related to law enforcement interviews with Zierke while he was incarcerated in the Nebraska Department of Corrections in 2006 and 2007. During those interviews, Zierke told investigators that he planned to sell drugs following his release from prison. The government thereafter filed a second notice of intent to introduce Rule 404(b) evidence. In this notice, the government stated its intent to introduce evidence regarding an October 31, 2008 phone call Zierke made to his son, Gary Zierke III ("Zierke III") while Zierke was incarcerated in the Douglas County Department of Corrections. During the phone call, Zierke intimated his desire to harm two witnesses who would testify against him.

Zierke's trial lasted four days and culminated with the jury finding Zierke guilty of Counts 1 and 2. The United States Probation and Pretrial Services office prepared a PSR. Zierke filed objections to the PSR, objecting, in part, to the quantity of drugs for which he was found responsible and the resulting base offense level, as well as a three-level increase for his role in the offense. The district court denied Zierke's objections and sentenced him to 360 months' imprisonment as to Count 1 to run concurrent to three years of supervised release as to Count 2.

II. Discussion

A. Admission of Recorded Phone Call

On appeal, Zierke argues that the district court should have excluded a recorded telephone conversation where he intimated his desire that his son harm witnesses that he believed had turned against him. First, Zierke contends that the phone call encouraged the jurors to fear him and convict him because he is a danger to society or is simply a bad man. Second, Zierke contends that the phone call was not relevant to a material issue. Zierke maintains that his dislike of people talking or lying about him does not provide probative evidence of whether he had entered into an agreement with others to distribute methamphetamine. Third, Zierke notes that this call occurred after he had been in jail for more than seven months. Finally, Zierke contends that the prejudice from introducing the call substantially outweighed any probative value that the testimony may have provided about whether he was involved in a drug conspiracy and should have been excluded under Federal Rule of Evidence 403.

In assessing a district court's evidentiary rulings, we review for an abuse of discretion. The trial court has broad discretion in determining the relevancy and admissibility of evidence. Under Rule 403, great deference is given to a district court's balancing of the relative value of a piece of evidence and its prejudicial effect.

United States v. Jiminez, 487 F.3d 1140, 1145 (8th Cir. 2007) (internal quotations and citations omitted).

Zierke's argument is without merit. Rule 403 provides in pertinent part: "Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice . . . ." "[E]vidence is not unfairly prejudicial merely because it tends to prove a defendant's guilt." United States v. Boesen, 541 F.3d 838, 849 (8th Cir. 2008). In turn, Rule 404(b) provides that "[e]vidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, [or] plan . . . ."

"We have ruled a number of times . . . that evidence of death threats against witnesses or other parties cooperating with the government is generally admissible against a criminal defendant to show consciousness of guilt of the crime charged." United States v. DeAngelo, 13 F.3d 1228, 1232 (8th Cir. 1994). "Moreover, we have noted that as direct evidence of the crime charged, the evidence of threats is not even Rule 404(b) evidence." Id. Finally, "[t]his court has been reluctant to hold that evidence was unfairly prejudicial when the district court gave an appropriate cautionary instruction." United States v. Davis, 154 F.3d 772, 780 (8th Cir. 1998). The district court gave a limiting instruction to the jury regarding the recordings of Zierke.*fn2 Zierke's comments to his son indicated a desire that the son eliminate witnesses against him. Such testimony is probative of his consciousness of guilt and also prejudicial. Like the district court, however, we do not consider its ...


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