US Supreme Court's Controversial Decision: The Cop-Killer's Intent

May 28, 2011

Much of what goes on in courthouses, day in and day out, is pretty mundane. We lawyers often refer to such comings and goings as "garden variety" lawsuits - he said, she said cases.  Fact is, as with any job or profession, after a while you've likely seen it all, done it all, and things can become a bit numbing.

However, every so often, something gets your attention. Your juices start flowing.

I just read the U.S. Supreme Court case of  Charles Andrew Fowler, a/k/a Man, Petitioner v. United States (May 26, 2011).  Not only is the fact pattern intriguing but the Supreme Court's Opinion is relatively easy to follow (regardless of whether you agree with the majority) and truly demonstrates how fascinating (and frustrating) the practice of law can be.

Execution in the Cemetery

Following a trial, a criminal case was appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. This is how that federal court's Opinion, describe the underlying crime:

In March 1998, Christopher Gamble, Jeffrey Bouyie, and Andre Paige robbed a Holiday Inn in Dundee, Florida. They then decided they would rob a NationsBank the next morning, and they recruited Fowler and Robert Winston to help them. Fowler and Winston had a stolen Oldsmobile that they used to surveille the bank and that they intended to use in the robbery. After surveilling the bank, they retrieved guns, masks, and gloves, and went to the Oakland Cemetery to prepare for the bank robbery. After concocting their plan, the five men donned black clothing and started drinking, taking drugs, and listening to music. Shortly before daybreak, Fowler left the car to use cocaine, because he did not want the others to see how much he had.

While Fowler was away, Haines City Police Officer Todd Horner drove up behind the stolen Oldsmobile and shone its spotlight at the car and its occupants. The Oakland Cemetery was known as a high-crime area, particularly for drug trafficking, and as a place for leaving stolen cars. Officer Horner called the Haines City police dispatcher and reported that he was going to investigate a suspicious vehicle. He approached the group and told them not to move.

At trial, Gamble testified that Officer Horner then pulled out a gun and told the group to give him their names so that he could check for outstanding warrants. At that point, Fowler snuck up behind Officer Horner and Gamble started talking to Officer Horner to distract him. Once Fowler was directly behind Officer Horner, Fowler grabbed Officer Horner's gun and Gamble, Winston, and Paige helped Fowler gain control of it. At trial, Gamble explained that they had subdued Officer Horner because "by the clothing that we had on - I mean it happened so fast, we didn't have time to throw the clothes off and look like regular people. We was [sic] going to rob a bank. So, it was evident. He sees all this black, you know. He knowed [sic] that something ain't right, and he knowed [sic] before that I was robbing." Because it was spring in Florida, it was suspicious that all of the occupants were wearing black clothes and gloves.

Gamble told Officer Horner to relinquish the gun and that nothing would happen to him. Officer Horner then gave Fowler the gun and asked Gamble, "Chris, why are you doing this?" Gamble testified that when Officer Horner called him by his first name, the rest of the group lost control and "went a little crazy," and Fowler stated that they would not be able to "walk away from this thing."

Fowler told Officer Horner to get on his knees. Gamble told Fowler to calm down and to give him the gun. Gamble reminded Fowler that Officer Horner knew only Gamble's name; if anything happened, Gamble would handle it and nothing would happen to Fowler. In the midst of the conversation, Bouyie yelled from the car, "kill that cracker," and Fowler shot Horner in the back of the head.

Gamble was later arrested and convicted for robbing an ABC Liquor Store in 1999 and was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment in a state prison. In March 2002, while serving his sentence, Gamble called Polk County law enforcement officials and told them he had robbed the Holiday Inn the night that Officer Horner was killed. He eventually told them that Fowler had murdered Horner. Gamble subsequently pled guilty to federal crimes, including the Holiday Inn robbery, and received a life sentence with a consecutive sentence of 107 years' imprisonment.

In 2007, Fowler was indicted for murdering Officer Horner with the intent to prevent Horner from communicating information about a federal offense to a federal law enforcement officer or judge of the United States, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(a)(1)(C) ("Count 1"). The jury found Fowler guilty on both counts, and the court sentenced him to life imprisonment for Count 1 and ten years' imprisonment for Count 2, which were to run consecutively.

SIDE BAR: The federal offenses that Fowler is alleged to have tried to conceal were:

(1) the robbery of a Holiday Inn in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1951;

(2) conspiracy to commit bank robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 371 and 2113;

(3) conspiracy to commit robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 371 and 1951;

(4) possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g); and

(5) possession of cocaine and marijuana in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 844. 

And just to be very clear - no, this isn't a made-for-television drama or a Hollywood movie. This is simply how it is out there, on the streets, on the beat. This is real crime.

Conviction and Appeal

Fowler was convicted of violating the federal witness tampering statute, which makes it a crime:

"to kill another person, with intent to . . . prevent the communication by any person to a [Federal] law enforcement officer" of "information relating to the . . . possible commission of a Federal offense."

On appeal, Fowler argued that the evidence was insufficient to show that he had killed Horner with the intent to prevent Horner from communicating with a federal officer. Rejecting Fowler's argument, the Eleventh Circuit held that it was sufficient for the prosecutor to show a possible or potential communication to federal authorities.

The Supreme Court Frames the Issue

In addressing Fowler's appeal, the Supreme Court noted that the federal witness tampering statute in relevant part forbids the

"kill[ing] or attempt[ed] kill[ing]" of "another person" with a certain "intent," namely, an "intent to . . . prevent the communication by any person to a law enforcement officer or judge of the United States of information relating to the commission or possible commission of a Federal offense . . . ." 

However, the Court also referenced a related subsection that requires for prosecutions involving the cited federal offense that:

"no state of mind need be proved with respect to the circumstance . . . that the judge is a judge of the United States or that the law enforcement officer is an officer or employee of the Federal Government . . "

When reading the two provisions together the Court concluded that when prosecuting such a case, the Government must prove:

  1. a killing or attempted killing,
  2. committed with a particular intent, namely, an intent
    (a) to "prevent" a "communication"
    (b) about "the commission or possible commission of a Federal offense"
    (c) to a federal "law enforcement officer or judge."

Combining all of the above concerns and tests, the Court framed the question on appeal as 

how this language applies when a defendant (1) kills a victim, (2) with an intent (a) to prevent a communication (b) about the commission or possible commission of a federal offense but (c) to law enforcement officers in general rather than to some specific law enforcement officer or set of officers which the defendant has in mind.

SIDE BAR: To more tightly frame the question before the Court: What, if anything, must the Government show beyond a somewhat vague notion of "intent," in order to prove that a defendant pointedly intended to prevent communication with federal officers. 

Do You Agree?

At this point, I've set the basic legal issues before you, so, why don't you see what it's like to read and interpret a real Supreme Court case?  If you've ever wondered what all that legal research is that we lawyers do (and charge you up the wazoo for), now you can get some first-hand experience. 

When you're done reading the case, figure out what you would tell Fowler if he were your client - or what you would do next if you were the federal prosecutor.