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Media Alerts - United States v. Lespier - Fourth Circuit
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October 17, 2013
  United States v. Lespier - Fourth Circuit
Headline: Appellant Cannot Benefit From Self-Inflicted Error

Area of Law: Criminal Procedure; Evidence

Issue Presented: Whether evidence of prior bad acts was properly admitted. Whether the effect of sleep deprivation is an appropriate subject for expert testimony. Whether appellant can benefit from a jury instruction error he prayed.

Brief Summary: James Ernest Lespier was charged in federal court with first-degree murder and use of a firearm. At a fish fry on May 17, 2010, Lespier and his ex-girlfriend Mandi Smith began arguing. After guests left, Smith was shot in the head and died instantly. Lespier was the only witness to the shooting, but did not call 911 for many hours. Lespier told police and others different versions of what happened, and tried to shift blame to Smith by suggesting she attempted to kill him first. At trial, the prosecution focused its argument on the inconsistencies in Lespier's story and his history of violence against Smith. The prosecution was allowed to introduce into evidence certain prior bad acts, including an instance where Lespier pushed Smith through a glass window. These prior bad acts were deemed admissible to prove intent pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b). In addition to admitting the prior bad acts, the trial court disallowed a defense expert from testifying that the effects of sleep deprivation might have caused the inconsistencies in Lespier's statements. The court also denied two defense motions for acquittal. Based on defense objections, the jury was only instructed on first degree murder and not second degree murder as requested by the prosecution. The jury then found Lespier guilty of first-degree murder and of the firearm charge. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms. Lespier appealed the denial of judgments of acquittal, raised two evidentiary challenges and claimed error in the court's failure to instruct the jury on the lesser-included charge.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit found the acquittal motions were properly denied because the prosecution offered ample evidence to prove Lespier shot Smith. The court also found the prior bad acts were properly admitted because the evidence was relevant, not unfairly prejudicial, and helped prove Lespier's intent. The Fourth Circuit found Lespier's expert witness was properly excluded because defendants are prohibited from offering expert testimony that is within the common knowledge of jurors. The assessment of a witness's credibility is an exclusive assignment for the jury, and sleep deprivation is something jurors can readily understand. Significantly, the Fourth Circuit found that the lower court did err in refusing to charge the jury on second degree murder. A defendant is not entitled to veto a prosecutor's request for a lesser included offense when evidence would permit a jury to rationally find the defendant guilty of the lesser offense and acquit him of the greater. However, this error was invited by the defendant's multiple requests to preclude instruction. The court found that Lespier should not benefit from the error he created. The Fourth Circuit thus denied Lespier's appeal and affirmed his life sentence.

To read the full decision, please visit:

Panel: Judges Traxler, King, and Hamilton

Date of Issued Opinion: 08/06/2013

Docket Number: No. 12-4266

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Kelly Lynch

Counsel: ARGUED: Milton Gordon Widenhouse, Jr., RUDOLF, WIDENHOUSE & FIALKO, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for Appellant. Amy Elizabeth Ray, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Asheville, North Carolina, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Anne M. Tompkins, United States Attorney, Charlotte, North Carolina, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: King, J.

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 10/17/2013 09:31 AM     4th Circuit  

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