EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Monday, October 10, 2011

Murder For Hire: 6th Circuit Finds Statements Made After Murder In Murder For Hire Qualify As Co-Conspirator Admissions

Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d)(2)(E) provides that

A statement is not hearsay if...[t]he statement is offered against a party and is...a statement by a coconspirator of a party during the course and in furtherance of the conspiracy.

If a defendant is charged with conspiracy to commit murder, the conspiracy typically ends with the murder (or its immediate aftermath), meaning that later statements cannot qualify as co-conspirator admissions because they were not made during the course of the conspiracy. But if the defendant is charged with conspiracy to commit murder for hire...well, then you have a case like United States v. Johnson, 2011 WL 4585234 (6th Cir. 2011).

In Johnson

Martha Johnson was beaten to death in her trailer-home on 22 July 1999. On 23 January 2007, her son Billy Johnson was indicted on murder for hire charges in her death. An eleven-count Redacted Superseding Indictment was returned on 14 August 2008 in which the Defendant was charged with conspiracy to use interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder for hire,...with traveling in interstate commerce with the intent to commit murder for hire and aiding and abetting,...and with use of the mail in the commission of murder for hire....

At trial, the court allowed the prosecution to admit statements made by Billy Johnson's co-conspirator, Danny Winberry, concerning Billy Johnson's failure to pay him $45,000 from life insurance proceeds on a policy on Martha Johnson's life.

After Billy Johnson was convicted, he appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the district court erred by deeming this statement a co-conspirator admission under Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d)(2)(E) because the conspiracy ended with Martha Johnson's death. The Sixth Circuit disagreed, concluding that Billy Johnson

misconstrue[d] the parameters of the charge of murder for hire in this case. The objectives of the conspiracy, as argued by the government, did not consist solely of the murder of Martha Johnson, but also, integrally, included the post-murder payment of $45,000 to Winberry from the Defendant garnered from Ms. Johnson's life insurance proceeds. The duration of the murder for hire conspiracy, so construed, spanned from July 1999 until payment was made to Winberry. As Winberry noted at trial, he never received that balance of payment. Further, Winberry's statements to Haynes Johnson and Ricky Elrod nurtured the conspiracy by concealing it from the investigation of law enforcement.



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