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United States v. Coonce

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 25, 2019

United States of America Plaintiff - Appellee
Wesley Paul Coonce, Jr. Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: January 15, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri - Southern Division

          Before LOKEN, GRASZ, and STRAS, Circuit Judges.


         Wesley Paul Coonce, Jr. appeals the district court's[1] judgment sentencing him to death for his role in the murder of Victor Castro-Rodriguez ("Castro"). We affirm.

         I. Background

         Coonce and Castro were inmates in a locked ward that housed mental health patients at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri ("FMC Springfield"). Coonce was serving a life sentence for kidnapping and carjacking, while Castro was committed due to his mental health and had no projected release date.

         Prison officials found Castro dead in his cell on January 26, 2010. The responding staff found Castro unconscious, with his hands tied behind his back with medical tape, feet bound at his ankles with shoelaces, and a brown cloth wrapped around his neck. Medical staff tried to resuscitate him to no avail. Dr. Carl Stacy, the government's expert pathologist, testified that Castro died from asphyxiation due to a compressed larynx. He opined that the strangulation occurred from a "larger object," not hands, because of blunt force trauma to the neck and the lack of any broken hyoid rings. He also noted blunt force trauma to the chin and injuries to the upper chest, lower neck, and back of the head. He estimated Castro died within three to five minutes.

         Physical evidence supported the conclusion that Coonce and another inmate, Charles Hall, had killed Castro by standing on his neck. Both Coonce's right boot and Hall's shoes tested positive for a substance containing Castro's DNA. Coonce had two pairs of shoes in his cell that were missing their shoelaces. Coonce also showed Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") Agent Rick McLain where he had placed his hand on the wall to balance while standing on Castro's neck.

         A camera provided additional circumstantial evidence that Coonce and Hall killed Castro. The prison did not have cameras that could see inside Castro's cell or the door to his cell at the time of the murder. Nevertheless, a camera showed the only people that approached Castro's cell during the time of the murder were Coonce and Hall. After a few minutes, Coonce left the cell for about a minute to talk to another inmate. He rejoined Hall in Castro's cell, and both of them were there for about nine additional minutes. Coonce left again, made a throat-slashing sign to another inmate and then returned to the cell. Both Coonce and Hall left the cell a couple minutes later.

         Coonce repeatedly claimed responsibility for Castro's murder. His first admissions came shortly after FMC Springfield officials discovered Castro's body. He particularly described that he tied up Castro's hands and feet and stomped on Castro's neck. He explained Castro was a snitch. That same night, he told an investigating FBI agent that he kicked Castro in the neck and stood on his throat until he stopped breathing. Coonce also claimed both he and another person, which other evidence showed to be Hall, stood on Castro's neck until Castro stopped breathing. Coonce explained that interactions with other inmates had upset him and that he decided to retaliate against Castro for previously telling prison staff about a minor offense. The next day, he told a Bureau of Prisons ("BOP") psychologist that he killed a man and that it was by his choice. He told the FBI in a subsequent interview that he had no regrets about killing Castro. Coonce also bragged about the murder to inmates and admitted it in letters and calls to friends and family.

         In July 2011, a grand jury indicted Coonce on one count of murder in the first degree within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1111 and 2, and one count of murder by a federal prisoner serving a life sentence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1118. The indictment included special findings of the statutory factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3591 and aggravating factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3592(c) that made the charged offenses eligible for the death penalty.

         Coonce filed a motion for a separate trial from co-defendant Hall. The district court denied the motion. It concluded that redacting statements with Bruton[2] risks and properly instructing the jury would resolve any potential prejudice.

         During pre-trial disclosures, the government asked for discovery on Coonce's mental health evidence and for an Atkins[3] hearing on whether Coonce was "mentally retarded."[4] Coonce responded that "the defense will not be asserting Mr. Coonce is mentally retarded" and "no Atkins hearing is necessary."

         After an eight-day trial in April and May of 2014, the jury found Coonce guilty on both counts in the indictment. The district court then retained the same jury for the capital sentencing proceeding, where the jury would decide whether to impose the death penalty.

         The government alleged Coonce was eligible for the death penalty based on his crime satisfying the required mental state for the death penalty and based on his conduct satisfying eight aggravating factors.[5] Four of the aggravating factors were from the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 ("FDPA"): (1) causing death during the commission of another crime; (2) having two or more prior convictions for violent felonies; (3) committing murder "in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse;" and (4) committing murder "after substantial planning and premeditation." 18 U.S.C. § 3592(c)(1), (c)(4), (c)(6), (c)(9). The other four aggravating factors were "non-statutory" as they are not listed in the FDPA: (1) future dangerousness, (2) conduct suggesting a grave indifference to human life, (3) lack of remorse about Castro's death, and (4) obstructing justice by retaliating against Castro for reporting misconduct.

         Coonce alleged that thirty-three mitigating factors weighed against the death penalty being an appropriate punishment for him, twenty-six of which were submitted to the jury. The first ten of these factors focused extensively on his chaotic and abusive childhood. Two factors sought to rebut the government's factors. They alleged Coonce showed remorse for Castro's death and that he would have help from loving family and foster family relationships. Six factors focused on his mental state and on injuries that may have caused traumatic brain injuries. Three factors alleged he had a lesser role in the murder. One of these factors suggested he killed Castro out of a desire to escape abuse from other inmates due to the sexual offenses in his history. Another noted Coonce's repeated attempts at suicide. Two factors alleged he had improved in the two years prior to trial. Finally, one catch-all factor allowed the jury to acknowledge "other reasons that weigh against the imposition of a sentence of death for Defendant Coonce."

         After hearing all of the penalty phase evidence, the jury unanimously decided the death penalty should be imposed on Coonce. They found the government proved all eight aggravating factors. The entire jury found one mitigating factor: "Defendant Coonce's childhood was marked by chaos, abuse (both physical and sexual), as well as neglect and abandonment." Individual jurors found other mitigating factors. Eleven jurors found "[t]he chaotic and abusive life that Defendant Coonce endured as a young child increased his risk for emotional and mental disturbances in his adult life." Eight jurors found "[d]efendant Coonce has suffered from mental and emotional impairments from a very young age." One juror found "[d]efendant Coonce's mother, Linda Coonce, was addicted to illegal drugs and alcohol." In light of those findings, all of the jurors weighed the aggravating factors against the mitigating factors and agreed the death penalty was appropriate.

         The district court imposed the death penalty as determined by the jury. Coonce timely appealed.

         II. Analysis

         The FDPA requires this court to perform three tasks on review: (1) "address all substantive and procedural issues raised on appeal," (2) "consider whether the sentence of death was imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice, or any other arbitrary factor," and (3) assess "whether the evidence supports the special finding of the existence of an aggravating factor . . . under section 3592." 18 U.S.C. § 3595(c)(1). The court may "not reverse or vacate a sentence of death on account of any error which can be harmless," and the government bears the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the error was harmless. Id. § 3595(c)(2).

         Coonce raises sixteen arguments on appeal. We address them in order.

         A. Eligibility for the Death Penalty

         Coonce first argues that he meets the "mentally retarded" exception to the FDPA and is not eligible for the death penalty. The FDPA states "[a] sentence of death shall not be carried out upon a person who is mentally retarded." 18 U.S.C. § 3596(c). "[C]linical definitions of mental retardation require not only [1] subaverage intellectual functioning, but also [2] significant limitations in adaptive skills . . . that [3] became manifest before age 18." Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 318 (2002). Both the Supreme Court and this court have repeatedly noted the consensus that mental retardation must, as a definitional matter, onset before age eighteen. See, e.g., id.; Ortiz v. United States, 664 F.3d 1151, 1158 (8th Cir. 2011). Coonce conceded below, and concedes on appeal, that his intellectual deficits were onset at age twenty. Thus, his argument relies on changing the prevailing understanding of the statutory exception to encompass an age of onset after eighteen.

         In response to the government's request for discovery of mental health evidence, Coonce stated he would not be asserting that he is "mentally retarded" and that no Atkins hearing was necessary. Then, on day fourteen of the capital sentencing proceeding, Coonce filed a motion requesting an order barring the government from seeking the death penalty, arguing that the Supreme Court's decision against a firm IQ score cutoff in Hall v. Florida, 134 S.Ct. 1986 (2014) also supported eliminating the firm age cutoff in the definition of intellectual disability. The motion conceded Coonce did not meet the medical community's definition of age of onset but argued for a fluid definition anyway.

         We assume, without deciding, Coonce preserved his argument and we hold the age of onset requirement remains before the age of eighteen. Coonce's main argument to evade the precedent construing the FDPA is to assert that the age of onset requirement is not rigid or will change in the near future. This argument disregards "a 'fundamental canon of statutory construction' that words generally should be 'interpreted as taking their ordinary . . . meaning . . . at the time Congress enacted the statute.'" New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira, 139 S.Ct. 532, 539 (2019) (ellipses in original) (quoting Wisconsin Central Ltd. v. United States, 138 S.Ct. 2067, 2074 (2018)). Both the American Psychiatric Association ("APA") and the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities ("AAIDD") agreed at the time Congress enacted the FDPA's "mentally retarded" exception that the impairment must onset by definition before eighteen.[6] Thus, as a matter of statutory construction, Coonce's argument is meritless.

         Coonce cites two other sources to persuade us to interpret the FDPA as having his preferred age of onset requirement: the text of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and a rule promulgated by the Social Security Administration ("SSA"). We find neither persuasive.

         The Rehabilitation Act evidence is unhelpful because it involves a policy context that compels no legal conclusion. Coonce is correct that Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to expand eligibility for disability benefits from those with a disability onset before eighteen to those with a disability onset before twenty-two. Rehabilitation, Comprehensive Services, and Developmental Disabilities Amendments of 1978, Pub. L. 95-602, 92 Stat. 2955, 3004-05 (1978). He does not explain how this policy choice defining eligibility for benefits for physical and mental disabilities constitutes a medical judgment about mental disability. Because developmental disability is inherently a legal term, not a medical one, see Tennessee Prot. & Advocacy, Inc. v. Wells, 371 F.3d 342, 349 n.5 (6th Cir. 2004), Congress could redefine the term when it wanted as a matter of policy. We see no indication in the FDPA that Congress intended to adopt its policy judgments in other areas in lieu of the definition that prevailed at the time, especially when it did not specify that same policy judgment here.

         Coonce is correct that the Social Security Administration defines intellectual disability as onset before age twenty-two. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.05. The SSA's rule is unhelpful because it cites no basis at all for its definition. There is no discussion in the Federal Register of why that rule was adopted. See Federal Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance; Listing of Impairments-Mental Disorders, 50 Fed. Reg. 35038, 35049-50 (Aug. 28, 1985). Thirty-one years later, the SSA did posit a reason for its age of onset: that it obtained that definition from the American Psychological Association (as opposed to the American Psychiatric Association). See Revised Medical Criteria for Evaluating Mental Disorders, 81 Fed. Reg. 66138, 66155 n.16 (Sept. 26, 2016). This explanation is implausible on its face because it cites a 1996 manual to justify a 1985 definition. See id.[7] This does not necessarily harm the SSA's rule because the agency could adopt a minority view with its rulemaking authority even when the APA and AAIDD do not agree. This does harm Coonce's argument, though, because this court does not promulgate administrative rules and because Coonce still lacks evidence of experts defining the age of onset as before age twenty-two at the time Congress adopted the FDPA. Neither this court nor any professional association or administrative body has been delegated the legislative authority to redefine a term adopted by Congress.

         Coonce alternatively raises this argument as an Eighth Amendment challenge. He tells us about recent changes in the debate over defining disabilities, describing how the APA has recently changed its definition for the age of onset from before eighteen to "during the developmental period," defined as "during childhood or adolescence." In Coonce's view, this change leaves open the question of whether the APA still believes the developmental period is before eighteen. He also tells us about literature suggesting the AAIDD, which still defines the age of onset as before eighteen, will eventually shift to a more vague standard. Both of these arguments are predictions that medical experts will agree with Coonce's view in the future. Such evidence is not sufficient for us to divine any current Eighth Amendment limitation on the statute.[8]

         Because we agree with the district court that the age of onset is eighteen, we affirm its decision not to hold an Atkins hearing and not to consider whether Coonce satisfies the other factors for intellectual ...

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