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United States v. Blakeney

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

December 11, 2017

United States of America Plaintiff-Appellee
Steven Blakeney Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: September 20, 2017

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri - St. Louis

          Before WOLLMAN, MELLOY, and GRUENDER, Circuit Judges.


         Following 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[1] responses to questions presented by the jury during deliberation. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.


         The 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.

         On 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.

         Later 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 camera footage.

         The 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.[2] 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.

         After 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.[3]

         Blakeney, 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 $500 fine.

         After 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.


         A. Sufficiency of the evidence

         Blakeney 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. ...

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