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United States of America v. Aaron Taylor

June 7, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Diamond, J.


On December 3, 2010, a jury convicted Defendant Aaron Taylor of assault with a dangerous weapon. (Doc. No. 188.) During trial, I stated that I would issue this Memorandum to explain more fully my rulings regarding courtroom security and Defendant's proffered justification defense. In addition, on December 16, 2010, Defendant timely filed a Motion for Judgment of Acquittal and/or for a New Trial. (Doc. No. 205.) Although I granted Defendant's request to supplement his Motion (Doc. No. 207), after reviewing the record he has decided not to do so. For the reasons that follow, I will deny Defendant's Motion.


The grand jury charged Defendant with assault with a dangerous weapon and assault resulting in serious bodily injury. 18 U.S.C. §§ 113(a)(3), (6); (Doc. No. 1.) On August 6, 2007, Defendant asked me to discharge his counsel-the Public Defender-alleging that she "ha[d] no defense strategy," did not adequately investigate his case, and did not respond to his requests. (Doc. No. 11.) After holding a hearing at which the Assistant Defender indicated that she could no longer effectively represent Defendant, I appointed new counsel. (Doc. No. 50.)

Shortly before trial, I granted the Government's Motion to Dismiss Count 2 (assault resulting in serious bodily injury). (Doc. No. 178.) Defendant's trial began on November 30, 2010 and concluded on December 3, 2010 with the jury convicting Defendant on the remaining charge-assault with a dangerous weapon. (Doc. No. 189; Trial Tr. 39:6-10, Dec. 3, 2010.)

The trial evidence showed that in the Fall of 2006, Defendant-having been convicted in this Court of drug and weapons charges-was incarcerated at the Philadelphia Federal Detention Center. (Trial Tr. 13:17-14:9, Dec. 2, 2010.) Because of Defendant's prior prison assaults and disciplinary violations, he was assigned to the Special Housing Unit, a ward separated from the rest of the prison population. According to Defendant, in early October, 2006, a guard mistakenly gave him an extra razor blade for shaving. Defendant fashioned a makeshift knife or "shank" with the extra blade, and took the weapon with him to recreation on October 12, 2006. (Trial Tr. 49:3-21, 83, Dec. 2, 2010; see also Trial Tr. 75:20-24, Dec. 1, 2010.)

SHU inmates are permitted a daily hour of recreation five days a week. (Trial Tr. 63:5-6, Dec. 1, 2010.) Before each session, the assigned officer asks each inmate if he wishes to take or decline recreation. (Id. at 64:20-65:8.) Two guards then transport each handcuffed inmate wishing to take recreation to one of five enclosed yards. (Id. at 66:16, 77:18-78:10, 82:4-6, 116:17-20.) As an inmate enters the yard, he backs up to a door slot or "wicket," and places his cuffed hands into the slot so that the guards on the other side of the locked door can uncuff him. (Id. at 24:18-20; 62:21-25.) At the end of the hour, the guards summon each inmate, who again backs up to the wicket so that the guards can again cuff his hands behind his back. (Id. at 63:8-19.) Once all the inmates are handcuffed, the guards unlock the yard door and escort the inmates back to their cells. (Id.) If an inmate changes his mind and declines recreation once he arrives at the yard or anytime after he enters it, the guards will return him to his cell. (Id. at 93:3-94:7.)

On October 12, 2006, Defendant elected to take recreation. The recreation session was recorded by prison security cameras. (Trial Tr. 21:11-22:21, Dec. 1, 2010.) Defendant, Peter Bistrian, and several other prisoners were placed together in a fifteen-by-fifteen foot yard. (Trial Tr. 55:13-21, Dec. 2, 2010.) The guards removed Defendant's handcuffs before they removed Bistrian's. (Id. at 55:16-17.) Both Bistrian and Defendant spent virtually the entire recreation hour pacing; Bistrian also talked with other inmates. (Id. at 56-60.)

At the hour's end, Bistrian backed up to the locked yard door, putting his hands behind him and through the slot to be cuffed. (Trial Tr. 62:10-11, Dec. 2, 2010.) Defendant followed Bistrian to the door. (Id. at 86:12-16.) As soon as Bistrian was handcuffed, Defendant attacked him with the shank, slashing Bistrian's face, arms, and legs, causing him to bleed profusely. (Trial Tr. 68:13-23, 111:19-21, Dec. 1, 2010; 64:1-4, 86:1-22, Dec. 2, 2010.) Defendant ignored the guards' repeated commands to stop, and for two and a half minutes continued to slash Bistrian even as the guards doused Defendant with three cans of pepper spray. (Trial Tr. 68:25-69:2, 131:15-16, Dec. 1, 2010.)

With his hands cuffed behind him, Bistrian fell to the ground on his back and tried to fend off Defendant by kicking at the shank as Defendant slashed him. (Trial Tr. 73:20-23, 111:19-21, Dec. 1, 2010.) Finally, the guards tossed a "flash bang" grenade through the yard bars. (Id. at 132.) The grenade produced a very loud explosion and a bright flash that momentarily stunned Defendant. (Id. at 74-75, 132-33.) This allowed the guards to enter the yard and subdue Defendant, who told them that he "had to get Bistrian" before Bistrian got him. (Trial Tr. 67:24-68:2, Dec. 2, 2010; 155:3-9, Dec. 1, 2010.) Bistrian was immediately taken to the prison hospital, where he was treated for deep cuts to his face, arms, and legs. (Trial Tr. 68, 75, 150, Dec. 1, 2010.)


Among the issues I addressed at trial were Defendant's objection to the courtroom security measures I ordered, and my rulings with respect to Defendant's proffered justification defense and the elements of assault with a dangerous weapon. Defendant again challenges these rulings in his Motion for Judgment of Acquittal and/or for a New Trial. (Doc. No. 205.) I will address each issue in turn.

I. Courtroom Security Measures

Before trial, the Marshals Service advised that in light of Defendant's violent history, and the violent histories of four proffered defense inmate-witnesses, I should enhance courtroom security. Defendant objected and asked for a hearing, which I held on November 30, 2010. (Security Hr'g Tr. 14:8-10, Nov. 30, 2010.) I considered documentary evidence, Defendant's proffer respecting the inmate-witnesses, and the testimony of Deputy U.S. Marshal Joseph Iannuzzi, who credibly addressed both the need for additional security measures and his Office's recommendations.

Since Defendant's April 2006 incarceration at the Detention Center, he has twice used makeshift weapons to slash prisoners, attempted another slashing, and spat twice on a prisoner-apparent attempts to transmit a disease. (Id. at 16:24-17:22.) In a pretrial offer of proof, Defendant explained his intention to call four especially violent inmates who had resided in the Special Housing Unit around the time of the Bistrian assault. (See Hr'g on Gov't Motion in Limine Tr. pt. 2, at 6-9, Nov. 22, 2010.) One of these inmates had threatened to kill a member of this Court and an Assistant United States Attorney. (Id. at 8:15-20.) Given Defendant's repeated attacks on other inmates, the presence of these four prisoners created additional security concerns. (Security Hr'g Tr. 23:16-22, Nov. 30, 2010.)

I accepted Mr. Iannuzzi's recommendations and implemented the following measures: - Additional plainclothes Marshals were seated in the courtroom. - Defendant remained in leg restraints while seated at counsel table. The Marshals taped the restraints so they were not audible, and placed curtains around each counsel table to keep from view the legs of everyone seated at the tables. I required everyone in the courtroom to remain seated as the jury entered and left the courtroom. Once the jury was seated, only counsel were permitted to stand in the jury's presence. - The Marshals brought Defendant to the witness box outside the jury's presence and cuffed his leg to the witness chair so that the cuff was not visible to the jury. So that this would not seem unusual, I also required a Government witness to take the stand out of the jury's presence.

Because the witness chair is not attached to the floor, Mr. Iannuzzi remained concerned. Accordingly, I accepted his recommendation to allow a plainclothes Deputy Marshal to stand in the recess over my right shoulder out of the jury's view. I allowed counsel to sit in the jury box and confirm my observation that the jury could not see the Deputy Marshal.

(Hr'g on Gov't Motion in Limine Tr. pt. 1, at 2:1-7, 3:7-11, Nov. 22, 2010; Hr'g Tr. 5:19-8:2, Nov. 30, 2010; Trial Tr. 147:13-25, Dec. 1, 2010; Trial Tr. 6:1-7, 12:12-13:6, Dec. 2, 2010.)

In opposing these measures, Defendant argued primarily that they were unwarranted because he had never acted violently in court; rather, he had directed his violence only against other inmates. (Hr'g Tr. 7:1-8, Nov. 30, 2010; see also Doc. No. 180.) Defendant also contended that the additional security measures were ...

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