Evidence that is "inextricably intertwined" with the accused fire conspiracies is permissible in a murder fire for profit, especially when the previous fire was used as a "playbook" for the fire which is the subject of the appeal.
I United States Of America v James Edward Lester, a / k / a Punkin, No. 19-4333, United States Court of Appeals For The Fourth Circuit (June 9, 2020) a jury convicted James Lester of arson, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 844 (m) (2018), money laundering conspiracy, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956 (h) (2018), postal and wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1349, 1341, 1343 (2018), arson for committing wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 844 (h) (1) (2018), support for and illegal monetary transaction, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2, 1957 (2018), and structuring of transactions, in violation of 31 U.S.C. §§ 5324 (a) (3), (d) (2018). He received a 204-month sentence.
Lester claimed that the district court abused its discretion when acknowledging the evidence of a previous fire ("Wharncliffe fire") evidence. The district court admitted the evidence as inherent to the accused crimes. Alternatively, the district court ruled that the evidence was admissible under the Fed. R. Evid. 404 (b), as evidence of Lester's motives, knowledge and intent.
Lester questioned the district court's recognition of Wharncliffe's fire certificate as inherent in the fraud charges and he argued that the story of the crime was complete in itself and that there was no need to introduce evidence of the Wharncliffe fire. Lester also argues that the damaging effect of Wharncliffe's fire evidence substantially outweighs any probative value it may have had in proving the crime that occurred on properties owned by cocoa pirates in Matoaka and Ikes Fork, West Virginia. The government claimed that the district court correctly granted Wharncliffe's fire certificate as direct evidence for the Matoaka and Ikes Fork systems, as the evidence was inherent in the accused conspiracies.
Rule 404 (b) applies only to evidence of other acts that are extrinsic to the person charged. Acts inherent in the alleged crime do not fall under Rule 404 (b) limitations of permissible evidence.
Evidence is inherent in whether it is necessary to complete the story of the crime at trial. Other criminal acts are inherent when they are inextricably intertwined or both acts are part of a single criminal episode or the other acts were necessary initiations to the accused crime. Such evidence is inextricably linked to the evidence relating to the accused crime if it forms an integral and natural part of the witness' account of the circumstances of the crimes for which the accused was charged.
The Fourth Circuit therefore concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion when recognizing Wharncliffe's fire certificate as inherent in the accused conspiracies. This evidence laid the groundwork for the arson and insurance fraud schemes, and it was necessary to complete the story of Lester's relationship with his associates. In addition, Wharncliffe's fire certificates were "inextricably linked" to the charged fire conspiracies, as the Wharncliffe fire was used as a "playbook" for Matoaka and Ikes Fork fires.
In fact, the table of contents of Wharncliffe claims was overwhelming. similar to those in Matoaka and Ikes Fork fire requirements.
The district court's judgment was upheld.
Burn for profit is the most dangerous and vicious form of insurance fraud. Firefighters or innocent neighbors are often injured by a fire. In this case, the defendant had attempted fraud with a fire before working with co-contractors to put out two more fires claiming destruction of the same property involved in the previous fire. This fact made the evidence of the previous fire – the Wharncliffe fire – inextricably linked to the fires for which he was convicted.
© 2020 – Barry Zalma
Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his practice to working as an insurance consultant specializing in insurance coverage, handling insurance claims, cheating and insurance fraud almost equally for insurance policyholders. . He also acts as an arbitrator or mediator for insurance-related disputes. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims lawyer and more than 52 years in the insurance business. He is available at http://www.zalma.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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