United States v. Jason Harriman (8th Cir. August 2020)

The Federal Docket

Entrapment – A district court’s conviction for murder-for-hire under 18 U.S.C. § 3582 is reviewed de novo for entrapment as an affirmative defense.

Appeals – A district court’s denial of the defendant’s motion for new trial under Rule 33(a) and motion for new counsel is reviewed for abuse of discretion.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel – Claims of ineffective assistance of counsel based on a lack of thorough investigation or how evidence is presented at trial do not rise to the level of an exceptional case warranting review on direct appeal.

Jason Harriman was serving a twenty-year sentence when he appealed his conviction on grounds of entrapment.  While in prison for a prior offense, Harriman confided in another inmate his desire to murder his wife.  The inmate contacted law enforcement, and an undercover agent was enlisted.  Harriman attempted to hire the undercover agent to murder his wife and her boyfriend. Harriman’s defense at trial was entrapment, specifically that the government had induced him into hiring the undercover agent.

On appeal, the Court affirmed Harriman’s conviction and held that Harriman failed to produce sufficient evidence that the government induced his criminal activity through persuasion, threats, harassment, coercive tactics, or fraudulent representations.  Harriman made initial contact with the agent and despite multiple chances to back out he continued with the murder-for-hire plot.

The Court also held that a reasonable jury could find that Harriman was predisposed to commit murder-for-hire.  He was not an unwary innocent susceptible to government implanting the criminal design in his mind.  Rather, Harriman sought to hire someone to murder his wife and responded immediately and enthusiastically to the first opportunity to commit the crime.  Lack of government prodding made his criminal disposition readily apparent.

Harriman also asserted on appeal that the district court had not weighed the evidence independently when considering his motion for new trial under Rule 33(a). Applying an abuse of discretion standard of review, the Court denied Harriman’s challenge. The Court disagreed that the evidence was weighed in a light most favorable to the verdict.  Instead, the evidence supported the district court’s conclusion that Harriman was a violent, abusive partner throughout the relationship, had prior convictions for kidnapping and domestic abuse, and had previously inquired into killing his wife.

Again under the abuse of discretion standard, the Court also affirmed the district court’s denial of Harriman’s motion for new counsel. The Court found that the magistrate judges had conducted an adequate inquiry into Harriman’s complaints and properly found no justifiable dissatisfaction arising from an irreconcilable conflict or breakdown in communication.  Frustration with tactical decisions do not rise to justifiable dissatisfaction.

The Court also declined to consider Harriman’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. Claims for ineffective assistance are heard on direct appeal only in exceptional cases.  The Court found no miscarriage of justice or readily apparent error by Harriman’s counsel.  Claims of investigation thoroughness and how evidence is presented at trial did not rise to the level of an exceptional case.

 Appeal from the Northern District of Iowa

Opinion by Clark, joined by Loken and Grasz

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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