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Federal appeals court upholds prison sentence in witness tampering case

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Friday that the conviction and 210 month prison sentence of Juan Francisco Salazar, who was convicted of tampering with a witness in a drug trial, were proper. A jury found Salazar guilty of violating 18 USC 1512(b)(2)(A) [text] after evidence was presented that he threatened to rape and kill Sarah Rolon, in order to prevent Rolon's husband, Ira Rolon, from testifying against his brothers. Ira Rolon had been indicted with Elijah and Rocky Salazar on charges of possession and distribution of methamphetamine, marijuana, and cocaine in Oklahoma, but he pleaded guilty and became a prosecution witness against the two.

Salazar argued that the evidence against him was insufficient and that the US District Court for the Eastern District of Texas [official website] erred in applying the sentencing guidelines under 18 USC 1512(j) when it sentenced him to almost 18 years in prison. The Court rejected that contention, saying:

Under the manifest-miscarriage-of-justice standard, Salazar must show either that the record is “devoid of evidence of guilt” or that the evidence is “so tenuous that a conviction is shocking”... It is quite obvious that Salazar falls far short of satisfying the very narrow manifest-miscarriage-of-justice standard. Indeed, his sufficiency challenge would fail under the more lenient standard of review had he properly preserved this challenge.

As noted, when Salazar was sentenced, ten years was the statutory maximum for a violation of § 1512(b)(2)(A). In that regard, Salazar claims the district court erred by applying the penalty provisions of § 1512(j) and sentencing him to 210 months’ imprisonment, which he asserts was impermissibly above the above-referenced ten-year maximum. Section 1512(j), however, provides for a higher sentence...Our having held § 1512(j) was properly applied by the district court in calculating Salazar’s sentence, the maximum statutory penalty Salazar faced was life imprisonment. Accordingly, his 210-month sentence did not exceed the prescribed statutory maximum and Apprendi is not implicated.

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