An early morning robbing spree that included nine random victims led a Guilford County jury to convict Antonio Stimpson of five counts of conspiracy. A divided Court of Appeals panel on Nov. 7 affirmed the convictions, dismissing Stimpson’s argument that the robberies were a single conspiracy.
On appeal, Stimpson sought to have four of the five convictions dismissed, arguing that there was no evidence of planning or conversations between him and his co-defendants before or between each armed robbery, and that evidence found in the perpetrators’ vehicle and on their person — head and face coverings, gloves, weapons, and the victims’ belongings — and Stimpson’s own statements that he had met up with the co-conspirators before the crime spree began was sufficient to allow the jury to infer that only a single conspiracy had occurred.
Prosecutors alleged a separate conspiracy not for each victim, but for each act of robbery.
Stimpson testified that he, his cousin, and another man he’d met about a week before the crimes had been drinking and doing drugs the evening before, and the morning of, the crimes. Sometime around 5 a.m. on March 22, 2014, the trio piled into a Jeep Cherokee and, within a few hours, had committed five separate robberies, robbing nine individuals at gunpoint. In addition to the conspiracies, Stimpson was convicted of discharging a firearm into an occupied property, discharging a firearm into an occupied vehicle, six counts of robbery with a firearm, and two counts of attempted robbery with a firearm. He was sentenced to 63 years in prison.
A very particular set of facts
On appeal, Stimpson cited 1987 Court of Appeals case State v. Medlin, a case in which the defendant and two compatriots committed 10 break-ins of retail stores over a four-month period. After each break-in, the men met to divide the stolen items and to discuss the next caper. The defendants were convicted of seven counts of conspiring to break and enter, but the appeals court found that the crimes were a series of ongoing acts rather than multiple agreements.
“When the evidence shows a series of agreements or acts constituting a single conspiracy, a defendant cannot be prosecuted on multiple conspiracy indictments consistent with the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy,” Judge John Tyson wrote for the Stimpson court.
He added that there is no simple test for determining whether there was one conspiracy or several, acknowledging that several factors are considered, including “time intervals, participants, objectives, and number of meetings,” as established in 1984’s State v. Rozier.
But here, the state claims, and the majority agreed, that unlike Medlin, nothing evidences any meetings between Stimpson and his co-conspirators after any of the robberies to “plan additional robberies in furtherance of any prior agreement” to commit as many crimes as possible. Instead, evidence shows that the three men “agreed and engaged in random robberies as the opportunities appeared before them.”
There’s a difference
Stimpson looked also to bolster his argument by citing several cases that followed from Medlin — State v. Fink, 1989; State v. Wilson, 1992; and State v. Griffin, 1993 — but the court found those cases dissimilar, as they contained a “common scheme of a single conspiracy” and “one mutual, implied understanding” to commit an ongoing crime.
In Wilson, the defendant told his co-defendants before their first robbery that armed robberies were the only way to get “cash money.” Once the defendants began robbing, they did not want to stop. The appeals court found Wilson legally distinguishable from Medlin because the Wilson defendants demonstrated “a common scheme of a single conspiracy” to commit robberies to acquire cash.
And unlike Fink and Griffin, the court held, this case shows no evidence of a meeting between Stimpson and his codefendants to “devise a single plan to engage in a series of robberies.”
‘Random’ and ‘happenstance’
Tyson wrote that the “random nature and happenstance of the robberies” and related crimes do not indicate a one-time, pre-planned conspiracy. The victims and stolen property were not connected, and the crimes arose “at random and by pure opportunity,” the court held.
“Each of the series of crimes on the various victims was committed and completed before Defendant and his co-conspirators moved on and happened upon and mutually agreed to rob and commit other crimes on their next targets and victims of opportunity,” Tyson wrote.
The court noted that in a motion to dismiss, the trial court must consider evidence of multiple conspiracies in the light most favorable to the state. In reviewing the evidence in the same manner, the court found sufficient evidence supporting “a reasonable inference for the jury to consider and conclude” that Stimpson was involved in five separate conspiracies to commit armed robbery.
“The question of whether multiple agreements constitute a single conspiracy or multiple conspiracies is a question of fact for the jury,” Tyson wrote, adding that courts have consistently expressed a preference, relying on “common sense and fairness … and to avoid unnecessary appeals,” in “borderline” cases.
Judge Rick Elmore broke from the majority, writing in his dissent that the state failed to present substantial evidence to prove more than one conspiracy, citing the four factors established in Rozier.
In the four cases Stimpson cited in his defense, Elmore found that the court applied the Rozier factors and found but a single conspiracy in each case. And like those cases, the crimes in this case were completed in a short time interval (hours, as opposed to months in Medlin), involved the same participants, and shared a common objective to commit each crime. As to the fourth factor, meetings, Elmore wrote that the state presented no evidence in Griffin, Wilson, and Fink that the conspirators met before, during, or after the crimes that would allow the jury to infer implied understandings of the agreements. And while the Medlin court did find that the participants met between robberies, it determined that the purpose of the meetings was to divide the spoils and plan the next robbery “in furtherance of the original unlawful agreement.”
Elmore said that Stimpson established an implied understanding for one agreement when he testified that he and his co-defendants met the night before the robberies. The state, he continues, was burdened with providing evidence of four other separate meetings, and “impliedly admits” that it failed to do so.
“The State argues there was an implied understanding to commit each robbery based on the action of committing each robbery,” Elmore wrote. “However, the panels in the Rozier cases did not find an implied understanding based on the participants’ actions, and I believe it would be unwise to depart from that precedent now.”
Case by case
Phil Dixon of the UNC School of Government blogged in May about a case with a different fact pattern, but the same issue: one conspiracy or multiple ones? In State v. Glisson, the appeals court found that like the instant case, the latter applied. Though as mentioned earlier, there is no shortage of cases disapproving of multiple conspiracies. That means the answer, Dixon wrote, is “fact-specific and less than crystal clear.”
“The question of when the evidence supports multiple conspiracies remains a ‘thorny’ issue, and is a highly fact-specific inquiry,” Dixon wrote. “No single factor seems to control. Ultimately, whether there are multiple conspiracies turns on the scope and nature of the agreement or agreements. As a result, a more ambitious, organized, and far-reaching conspiracy may constitute a single conspiracy, while crimes planned on an ad hoc basis may result in separate conspiracies.”
Dixon reviewed Stimpson at Lawyers Weekly’s request and noted that it parallels the “intensely fact-specific” nature of Glisson.
An attorney for Stimpson, Drew Nelson of the Epstein Law Firm in Raleigh, agreed, calling this case a “straightforward” one that likely has no reach beyond its particular fact pattern.
“However, we do plan to appeal it to the [state Supreme Court] and they might hand down some principles that have a broader application,” he added.
The 34-page decision is State v. Stimpson (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-345-17). A digest of the opinion is available online at nclawyersweekly.com.
Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamacher