Submitted: September 20, 2017
from United States District Court for the Eastern District of
Missouri - St. Louis
WOLLMAN, MELLOY, and GRUENDER, Circuit Judges.
GRUENDER, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
a jury trial, Steven Blakeney was convicted of one count of
conspiracy against rights, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §
241; one count of deprivation of rights under color of law,
in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 242; and one count of
falsifying a record, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1519.
On appeal, he challenges the sufficiency of the evidence, two
evidentiary rulings, a statement made by the Government
during closing argument, and the district
court's responses to questions presented by the
jury during deliberation. For the reasons that follow, we
conduct underlying Blakeney's conviction arose during a
mayoral election in the city of Pine Lawn, Missouri between
incumbent mayor Sylvester Caldwell and candidate Nakisha
Ford. In the runup to the election, Blakeney, a Pine Lawn
police sergeant, visited the Pine Lawn Food Market. He asked
owner Mazen "Mario" Samad and his brother, store
manager Akram "Sam" Samad (together, "the
Samad brothers"), to allow him to display a Caldwell
campaign sign. Despite Mario's refusal, Blakeney placed
the sign in the store's window.
March 31, 2013, Ford entered the Pine Lawn Market and saw the
sign, which depicted her mugshot from a previous arrest. Ford
asked Mario to take the sign down. Mario told her that he
would not remove the sign himself but that she could do what
she wanted with it. Ford removed the sign and left. Mario did
not object to Ford's removing the sign, and he did not
call the police.
that day, Blakeney and several other police officers came to
the Pine Lawn Market and discovered the missing sign.
Blakeney demanded to see the security camera footage and
called Sam to the store. Blakeney then instructed Sam to call
911 to report the theft of the sign and threatened to frame
him for drug possession if he did not comply. After Sam
called 911, Pine Lawn Prosecutor Anthony Gray and other
police officers came to the store and reviewed the security
Samad brothers then accompanied Blakeney to the police
station, where he instructed them to give statements using
language he provided. Sam's son, Mohammed, prepared the
statements according to Blakeney's instructions because
the Samad brothers do not write English proficiently. At one
point, Blakeney stopped Sam's interview to instruct Sam
to change his story. He also directed Sam to step out of the
room, at which point Mayor Caldwell advised Sam, "Oh,
we['ll] take care of you. Don't worry about it."
The mayor also told Sam to say that he obtained the sign from
city hall himself. The Samad brothers signed the statements,
which stated that Sam obtained the sign from city hall and
that Ford created a disturbance and stole the sign. At
Blakeney's trial, the Samad brothers testified that these
statements were untrue.
the statements were complete, Officer Jesse Brock completed
Pine Lawn Police Department Incident Report No. 13-1337 based
on information Blakeney provided. Blakeney approved the
report, and Brock also filled out a form to obtain a
"wanted" for Ford.
three other police officers, the chief of police, and Gray
then proceeded to Ford's house to arrest her. Brock
testified that he did not recall anyone suggesting that they
issue Ford a summons instead of making the arrest. Ford was
taken into custody, booked, and transported to a jail in St.
Ann, Missouri. An hour later, Ford was returned to the Pine
Lawn Police Department, posted a $750 bond, and was released
early in the morning. Ford was charged with stealing and
disorderly conduct, but the charges ultimately were reduced
to a single littering charge. Ford pleaded guilty and paid a
these events came to light, Blakeney was charged in a
three-count indictment with conspiracy against rights,
deprivation of rights under color of law, and falsifying a
record. Blakeney did not testify at his trial. The jury
submitted two questions to the judge during deliberation.
First, the jury asked to read the testimony of Sam, Mario,
and Mohammad Samad. Outside the presence of the parties, the
judge responded that a transcript was unavailable, and he
later informed both sides of this exchange. Second, the jury
asked for clarification as to which document Blakeney was
accused of falsifying. The judge responded, "You are to
be guided solely by the evidence submitted and the
Court's instructions." The jury convicted Blakeney
on all counts, and he timely appeals his conviction.
Sufficiency of the evidence
first argues that the Government presented insufficient
evidence to demonstrate that he reached an agreement with any
would-be coconspirator to violate Ford's civil rights.
"We review the sufficiency of the evidence de novo,
viewing evidence in the light most favorable to the
government, resolving conflicts in the government's
favor, and accepting all reasonable inferences that support
the verdict." United States v. Huyck, 849 F.3d
432, 441 (8th Cir. 2017). We must uphold the verdict
"[i]f there is an interpretation of the evidence that
would allow a reasonable-minded jury to find the defendant
guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." Id. Reversal
is not appropriate "[e]ven where the evidence rationally
supports two conflicting hypotheses, " id., and
is required "only if no reasonable jury could have found
guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." United States v.
Gray, 700 F.3d 377, 378 (8th Cir. 2012).
It is a
crime for "two or more persons [to] conspire to injure,
oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person . . . in the free
exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to
him by the Constitution or laws of the United States."
18 U.S.C. § 241. For a conspiracy against rights, the
Government must prove "an actual agreement between two
or more persons to accomplish a prohibited object."
United States v. Morado, 454 F.2d 167, 169 (5th Cir.