There was sufficient evidence to support a conviction in which a kidnapper used trickery to lure his victim into a minivan for the purpose of robbing and killing him, a federal appeals court held Tuesday.
Addressing the question of whether a victim was “held” within the definition of the Lindbergh Law, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the conviction of Larry Corbett for the 2008 kidnapping and murder of George McPherson.
Corbett had contended that his kidnapping-ending-in-murder conviction and automatic life sentence should be vacated because there was no evidence showing he forced McPherson into the van.
Judges Robert Katzmann (See Profile), Ralph Winter (See Profile) and Guido Calabresi (See Profile) disagreed, however, saying in United States v. Corbett, 11-3678-cr, there was no doubt that Corbett committed a kidnapping under the law, 18 U.S.C.§1201(a). The law was passed after the infamous 1932 kidnapping and murder of the toddler of aviator Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
On June 14, 2008, Corbett borrowed his wife’s minivan and drove from Bridgeport, Conn. to McPherson’s home in the Bronx to buy 27 pounds of marijuana for $27,000.
McPherson was scrambling to find enough marijuana to make the deal, and only came up with nine to 10 pounds. He proposed completing the exchange in his home on Tiemann Avenue, but Corbett said he was concerned about suspicious vehicles he feared might be unmarked police cars.
So he convinced McPherson to complete the exchange in the minivan. A friend of McPherson’s who was in the house saw from a window McPherson enter the van carrying a duffel bag with the marijuana, and the pair drive away.
At 11:20 a.m., a resident of Greenwich, Conn. found the fatally shot body of McPherson dumped on the road by her house. Security footage captured Corbett’s minivan backing down the road at 11:15 a.m. and driving off minutes later.
Fifteen days later, Greenwich police arrested Corbett, who ultimately told Detective Charlie Brown that he had persuaded McPherson to do the drug deal in the van, but insisted that he “did not kill that man.” Instead, he claimed McPherson had been shot by a third man who robbed them both.
Corbett was convicted of kidnapping resulting in McPherson’s death under the Lindbergh Law, felony murder and other crimes in a bench trial before then-U.S. District Judge Christopher Droney in Hartford. Droney, now on the Second Circuit, sentenced Corbett to life in prison plus 10 years.
Oral argument on the appeal was heard at the circuit on Nov. 25, 2013. Corbett’s attorney argued insufficient evidence on the Lindbergh Law in the hopes that a vacated conviction on that count would lead to a remand and a sentence shorter than life imprisonment plus 10 years.
The law states that “Whoever unlawfully seizes, confines, inveigles, decoys, kidnaps, abducts, or carries away and holds for ransom or reward” any person and “the death of any person results” during the kidnapping shall be sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty.
Writing for the court Tuesday, Calabresi said there is a split among the circuits on what evidence is sufficient under the Lindbergh Law to convict a defendant of “holding” victims against their will.
“Other circuits differ as to whether a defendant who first ‘takes’ control of his victim by ‘decoy’ or trick must back up his pretense with physical or psychological force in order to ‘hold’ the unwilling victim under the statute,” Calabresi said, but the Second Circuit had never addressed the question of whether “a defendant may ‘hold’ a victim by trickery alone.”
The judge said, however, that the circuit “need not join either side of this split to decide this case.”
“Here, the evidence was sufficient that Corbett, after tricking his victim into the minivan, intended to continue holding the victim against his will—and so Corbett did—before robbing and killing the victim, and leaving his body by the side of the road,” he said.
Calabresi said the statute “plainly reaches a defendant” who seizes a person “by deceit, as well as a defendant who uses physical or psychological force instead of trickery.”
“Focusing, as we do, on the defendant’s intent, we need not, and hence, do not, decide today whether §1201(a) may be satisfied when a victim is ‘held’ only by the victim’s continued belief in his kidnapper’s dupe,” he said.
The court would never know exactly what happened in the van once Corbett and McPherson drove away from McPherson’s home, he said, but there was plenty of evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that “Corbett “intended to ‘take,’ ‘hold,’ and ‘transport’ McPherson from New York to Connecticut, against McPherson’s will, and that Corbett did so, causing McPherson’s death along the way.”
Assistant Connecticut U.S. Attorney H. Gordon Hall argued for the government, with fellow prosecutor Robert Spector on the brief.
Craig Raabe, a partner at Robinson & Cole, argued for Corbett.