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United States v. Sutton

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

March 5, 2019

United States of America Plaintiff- Appellee
Craig A. Sutton Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: November 15, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri - Kansas City

          Before GRUENDER, KELLY, and GRASZ, Circuit Judges.


         Craig Sutton appeals the revocation of his supervised release based on the allegation that he committed assault in June 2016. At the final revocation hearing, the government introduced videos and transcripts of police interrogations of three witnesses who had a connection to the assault. None of the three witnesses appeared at the hearing to provide live testimony, and Sutton objected that introduction of their interrogations deprived him of his right to confrontation. The district court overruled his objection. Relying almost exclusively on the interrogations, the district court concluded that Sutton more likely than not committed the assault and revoked his supervised release. We conclude that admission of the interrogations was erroneous and accordingly reverse.


         In 2013, Sutton pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and was sentenced to 46 months of imprisonment and three years of supervised release. Sutton was released on supervision on May 13, 2016. On June 20, 2016, police discovered Thomas Eisenbarth lying in a pool of blood inside his own Buick LeSabre, which was parked near the Truman Medical Center. Eisenbarth was unconscious and had been severely beaten. Although Eisenbarth survived the attack, he had no memory of who had attacked him. A surveillance tape showed Eisenbarth's vehicle being parked at the location around 11:00 p.m. on Sunday, June 19, approximately eleven hours before police discovered Eisenbarth. The video shows a man in black clothing exiting the vehicle and getting into the passenger side of a gold Chevy Blazer, which then departs the scene.

         Police learned that Eisenbarth was in a romantic relationship with Cliniesha Douglas. When police went to Cliniesha's home, they discovered her gold Chevy Blazer parked outside. Blood was smeared on the dashboard. Police knocked on the door of the house, and Cliniesha's brother, Ezekiel Douglas, answered the door dressed in all black. Police found blood in various rooms of Cliniesha's house, on the front porch, and on cleaning supplies. They arrested Cliniesha and Ezekiel.

         After advising them of their Miranda rights, Detectives Terrence Owens and Michael Buckley separately interviewed Cliniesha and Ezekiel, off-and-on, for more than six hours. During the interrogations, Cliniesha and Ezekiel provided accounts that were internally inconsistent, in conflict with one another, and contradicted by the physical evidence. The detectives repeatedly accused both individuals of lying, and both Cliniesha and Ezekiel confessed to making false statements during the interviews. Because the specifics of their statements are important for our analysis, we summarize them in some detail.

         Cliniesha initially denied knowing anything about the assault. She acknowledged that she was in a relationship with Eisenbarth and that she had previously been in a relationship with Sutton, who is the father of two of her children. At first, she told the detectives that only four people had been at her house that Sunday: herself, her brother Ezekiel, her minor daughter, and Eisenbarth. She stated that she had been drinking heavily and that she periodically blacked out or fell asleep. She said she had fallen asleep on the couch next to Eisenbarth, and when she awoke around 11:00 p.m., he was gone. She repeatedly stated that Sutton had not visited her house that day.

         Cliniesha then told the detectives that Sutton had indeed come to her home that day but that she had not let him inside. Later, she changed her story again, and said that Sutton had come inside, pushing past her and confronting Eisenbarth. But she did not describe any type of physical altercation, and indicated that Eisenbarth left in his own car around 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. Cliniesha later said that Sutton called her and told her that he had confronted Eisenbarth at a gas station. She claimed that Sutton told her he had hit Eisenbarth, that he and his cousin "Ferman" had "fucked him up," and that Sutton had taken Eisenbarth to the hospital. Later in the interrogation, Cliniesha admitted that she had fabricated the gas station detail.

         Cliniesha eventually changed her story again, and said that she had witnessed Sutton, along with his cousin Jermaine Oliver, attack Eisenbarth inside her house. But Cliniesha stated that the injuries they inflicted were minor relative to the life-threatening wounds that Eisenbarth ultimately suffered. She described Eisenbarth as "fine," and certainly not unconscious. According to Cliniesha, Sutton and Oliver then left, and Eisenbarth and Ezekiel remained at the house. Cliniesha said she fell asleep, and when she awoke later that evening, Eisenbarth and Ezekiel were gone, as was her Chevy Blazer. She said she called Ezekiel, who said he had gone to their mother's house but was coming back. She said that Sutton then came back and asked Ezekiel for a ride. Cliniesha said her brother later told her that he had gone and picked up Sutton from near the hospital in her Blazer. She attested that she had not seen Sutton since, and that only Ezekiel and her daughter were in the house the next morning when she woke up.

         Throughout her interrogation, Cliniesha claimed not to have witnessed the assault that nearly killed Eisenbarth. Yet later, at the revocation hearing, Detective Buckley agreed that Cliniesha appeared to have blood under her fingernails. During her interrogation, Cliniesha provided no explanation as to how she acquired blood under her fingernails, why there was blood in various rooms of her house, or why she did not contact the police upon learning that Eisenbarth had been severely injured. Although Cliniesha at times expressed fear that Sutton or one of his associates would harm her, she also stated at least once that she was "not scared of him."

         Ezekiel's initial story to police was that he similarly knew nothing about an assault on Eisenbarth. He told the detectives that many people were hanging around Cliniesha's house on Sunday, including Sutton and his friends. Although Ezekiel admitted he had been drunk that day, he claimed to remember the day's events. He confirmed that Cliniesha ...

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