Court Opinions: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion from July 6

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

United States v. Wells

In 2020, a grand jury issued an indictment charging David Wells with committing aggravated sexual abuse, assault with the intent to commit aggravated sexual abuse, assault resulting in serious bodily injury and assault with a dangerous weapon, all in Indian country. After a jury convicted Wells on all four counts, Wells appealed both his convictions and sentence. 

Wells and V.W. were married and considered Indians under federal law. On March 9, 2019, they were alone at Wells’ house on the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation when Wells accused V.W. of getting pregnant by another man. Frightened, V.W. told Wells she wanted to leave. When she tried to flee through the kitchen, Wells tackled V.W. in the doorway. Wells dragged V.W. by her hair through the kitchen and into a back bedroom filled with children’s toys where he told her she “wasn’t leaving, and that he was going to kill [her].”

Wells retrieved a wooden club from the kitchen and assaulted V.W. Later, she managed to get up and wash the blood from her face before walking to a neighbor’s house where she called the police. 

A Bureau of Indian Affairs officer responded and called an ambulance for V.W., which took her to a hospital in Cortez, Colorado. The BIA officer found Wells at a nearby residence. Wells tried to hide in a bedroom and gave a false name. His shorts and shoes were covered in blood and he had noticeably swollen knuckles. 

A BIA special agent spoke to V.W. at the hospital. She described Wells’ attack consistently with her trial testimony, but omitted Wells’ acts of sexual abuse because of shame. Due to the severity of V.W.’s injuries, doctors cut the interview short to life-flight her to St. Anthony’s Hospital in Lakewood, Colorado. Upon her arrival at St. Anthony’s, V.W. was examined by Dr. Rebecca Vogel, a trauma surgeon. Vogel noted the existence of numerous traumatic injuries, including bruising, swelling and bleeding all over V.W.’s body. A CAT scan of V.W.’s face revealed a broken orbital bone with bone fragments and blood in her sinus cavity. Vogel admitted V.W. to the hospital’s intensive care unit. V.W. remained at the hospital for three days, undergoing “[c]ontinued examinations of her abdomen, as well as ensuring that she could tolerate food and water and drinking.” V.W. consented to an exam by a qualified sexual assault nurse examiner. The nurse documented a host of injuries. 

Following his conviction, the district court concluded Wells could receive a life sentence under sentencing guidelines. Despite labeling Wells a “habitual violent domestic abuser” whose criminal history was “substantially understated and underrepresented” by the advisory guidelines range, the district court sentenced him to 360 months in prison.

On appeal, Wells argued that the district court erred in instructing the jury, but the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that in his party’s package of jury instructions, he invited both of these alleged errors and thus waived appellate review. 

Wells also argued his convictions were multiplicitous and unconstitutionally vague. Multiplicity occurs when two separate criminal counts cover the same criminal behavior. According to United States v. Frierson, “Multiplicity is not fatal to an indictment. Indeed, the government may submit multiplicitous charges to the jury. But multiplicitous sentences violate the Double Jeopardy Clause, so if a defendant is convicted of both charges, the district court must vacate one of the convictions.” Based on the arguments presented by Wells on appeal, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the district court didn’t plainly err in failing to vacate his conviction. 

According to Wells’ appeal, the district court erred in admitting testimony from Vogel regarding the risk of death to V.W. resulting from Wells’ assault under the plain error standard. Vogel testified to observing V.W.’s injuries. She further noted the danger inherent in her injuries and the difficulty of surgical intervention and risk of tissue damage. Vogel noted that both death and long-standing infection were significant possibilities, testifying that the percentage of morbidity associated with some of V.W.’s injuries — ranging from infection to prolonged hospitalization —  exceeded 60%. Wells asserted that the testimony was irrelevant and its admission was improper because V.W. never faced a risk of death. However, the 10th Circuit ruled that the evidence was both relevant and admissible.

Regarding his sentence, Wells asserted the district court erred in calculating his offense level by applying the “abduction” enhancement, concluding V.W. suffered life-threatening bodily injury and applying the enhancement for obstructing or impeding the administration of justice.

Citing an earlier 10th Circuit case, United States v. Archuleta, the court held that a person is abducted if  “he or she is forced to move from his or her original position with sufficient force that a reasonable person would not believe he or she was at liberty to refuse, the offender accompanies the person to the new location and the relocation of the person was in order to further either the commission of the crime or the offender’s escape.” Under this judgment, the move to the toy room constituted abduction and the district court did not err in its conclusion. 

Additionally, the circuit court ruled that, because the district court’s finding is fully supported by the testimony of Vogel, a trauma surgeon and V.W.’s treating physician, the district court did not clearly err in finding that the injuries Wells inflicted upon V.W. resulted in life-threatening bodily injury.

Regarding the obstruction enhancement, Wells asserted that it could not be supported by the reasoning supplied by the district court. He said the district court erred to the extent it concluded his violation of the no-contact order is obstruction per se because a no-contact order is analogous to types of restraining orders. Additionally, Wells asserts the district court’s finding that he sent the letter to V.W. for the purpose of influencing V.W.’s potential testimony at his sentencing proceeding is not supported by a preponderance of the evidence. The 10th Circuit agreed with Wells’ contentions and concluded that the district court erred in enhancing Wells’ offense level for obstruction of justice. 

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Wells’ challenges to the validity of his convictions were without merit, affirming the convictions. Although the district court did not err in applying the abduction and substantial risk-of-death enhancements in calculating Wells’ total offense level, the 10th Circuit ruled that the district court erred in applying the obstruction adjustment. The circuit remanded the matter to the district court to vacate Wells’ sentence and conduct further proceedings.

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