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United States v. Robinson

October 29, 1976

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, APPELLEE,
v.
WILLIAM EUGENE ROBINSON, APPELLANT.



Appeal from a judgment of conviction in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, Robert C. Zampano, Judge, finding appellant guilty of bank robbery, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2113 (a) and (b). Reversed and remanded.

Author: Meskill

Before: SMITH, OAKES and MESKILL, Circuit Judges .

MESKILL, Circuit Judge :

On February 18, 1975, three armed men robbed the Trap Falls office of the Connecticut National Bank in Shelton, Connecticut, and fled with $2,034. Tellers, Retta Mondulick and Robert Welch, were present in the bank at the time of the robbery, and the entire 84-second incident was captured on film by a bank surveillance camera that was activated by Mrs. Mandulick when she saw the first man enter the bank.

Appellant Robinson came under suspicion as a result of an informant's tip. He surrendered voluntarily after learning that the FBI had, with the consent of his wife, searched his apartment and taken his coat, which resembled a coat worn by one of the bank robbers.

At Robinson's first trial, the jury was unable to reach a verdict, and Judge Newman declared a mistrial. At a second jury trial before Judge Zampano, Robinson was found guilty of bank robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2113(a) and (b). Because certain erroneous evidentiary rulings prejudiced Robinson's alibi defense, we reverse his conviction.

I. The Third Man

There is no dispute over the identity of two of the three bank robbers. One was Luther Fleming, who is apparently still at large. The other was David Tate, who pled guilty and was given a ten year sentence.*fn1 Tate did not testify at Robinson's first trial.

On the day after the bank robbery, the FBI took a bank surveillance photograph to the Bridgeport jail and enlisted the aid of Correctional Officer George Maher and his staff in identifying the third man involved in the robbery. Maher was prepared to testify that, based on an examination of their files, he and his staff concluded that the individual in the picture resembled one Eli Turner. If Judge Zampano had admitted the evidence of the resemblance to Turner, the government would have stipulated that Bridgeport Police Captain Anthony Fabrizi, if called, would testify that Eli Turner was suspected of committed two local armed robberies in early February, 1975, and was still at large. Judge Zampano excluded Maher's testimony because he was concerned that its admission would open the door to testimony by numerous witnesses that the bank surveillance photographs either did or did not resemble Robinson. On appeal, Robinson claims that the exclusion of the Maher/Fabrizi testimony was error. We agree.

The central issue in this case was one of identification. The government maintained that the third man in the bank was Robinson, and Robinson claimed that it was not. Robinson's claim was more plausible than it might at first appear. The photographic identification procedures employed by the FBI had been mildly suggestive, and the defense argued that the in-court identifications made by the two tellers were the products of pretrial misidentification.*fn2 The bank surveillance photographs were of such quality that the defense was able to argue to the jury that an examination of the film would prove that the third bank robber was not Robinson. The testimony of Tate, who agreed to testify on the eve of the second trial, was subject to attack on the ground that it was the product of a "deal" with the government.*fn3

It was entirely proper for Robinson to disprove the government's contention by proving that the third man was someone else. 1 J. Wigmore, Evidence § 34 (3d ed. 1940) [hereinafter cited as Wigmore]; 2 Wigmore § 413. If it was, then obviously Robinson was innocent. Evidence to the effect that the third man in the bank resembled an individual suspected of two armed robberies that occurred in the Bridgeport area within six days prior to the bank robbery was clearly probative of the issue Robinson sought to prove, namely, that the third man was someone else.

The reasons given by Judge Zampano for the exclusion of this evidence were based upon his desire to avoid repetitive opinion testimony by witnesses for both the prosecution and the defense concerning whether or not Robinson resembled the individual in the bank surveillance photographs. This concern was, of course, legitimate.*fn4 The jury could look at the pictures and look at Robinson and decide that issue for itself. The Advisory Committee Notes to Fed. R. Evid. 701 indicate that if "attempts are made to introduce meaningless assertions which amount to little more than choosing up sides, exclusion for lack of helpfulness is called for by the rule." However, the Maher/Fabrizi testimony had a different purpose. Maher was going to testify about the resemblance of the individual in the picture to Turner, not Robinson. Turner was not before the court, and he could not have been brought to court because he was still at large. The comparison that Maher was going to make was one which the jury could not have made for itself, so his testimony did not suffer from a "lack of helpfulness." The reasons given by Judge Zampano for the exclusion of the Maher/Fabrizi testimony simply do not justify his evidentiary ruling.

The government argues that opinion testimony based on only general features is inadmissible, particularly when the opinion comes from a lay witness. Even assuming the correctness of that proposition, see note 2 supra, we cannot agree that it is dispositive on the facts of this case. As indicated above, Maher was not going to testify about the defendant, he was going to testify about another individual. His opinion was "rationally based on [his] perception" because he had seen Turner, and it was "helpful to . . . the determination of a fact in issue" because Turner was unavailable. Therefore, his opinion was admissible under Rule 701, and it would not have been "objectionable because it embrace[d] an ultimate issue to be decided by the trier of fact." Fed. R. Evid. 704. We cannot agree with the government that Maher's testimony amounted to "meaningless assertions which amount to little more than ...


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