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United States v. Pierre

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

January 11, 2019

United States of America Plaintiff- Appellee
Matthew St. Pierre Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: October 15, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the District of South Dakota - Aberdeen

          Before SHEPHERD, KELLY, and STRAS, Circuit Judges.


         Matthew St. Pierre pled guilty to aiding and abetting second-degree murder in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2, 1111, and 1153. Pursuant to a plea agreement, the government recommended a United States Sentencing Guidelines range of 292-365 months imprisonment. The district court[1] rejected the plea agreement's recommended sentencing range, adopted a higher range, and sentenced St. Pierre to 480 months imprisonment. St. Pierre appeals, contending the government breached the plea agreement and the district court committed procedural and substantive error in calculating his sentence. Having jurisdiction pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3742 and 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we conclude the government did not breach the plea agreement. Therefore, the appeal waiver is enforceable with respect to the other claims raised here, and we dismiss the appeal.

         G.K.I.W., a five-year-old girl, lived with her mother, Desarae Makes Him First, and St. Pierre, her mother's domestic partner, on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. On Wednesday, October 5, 2016, staff at G.K.I.W.'s elementary school noticed the child had bruising on her face, including her cheek and forehead. When asked what happened, G.K.I.W. said St. Pierre hit her while he was drunk. She began crying when staff asked if she had been hurt anywhere else. A school nurse found additional bruises on G.K.I.W.'s collarbone, and staff alerted the South Dakota Department of Social Services Child Protection Services (DSS) and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Child Protection Services (SRST-CPS). A DSS social worker examined G.K.I.W. and found even more bruising on the child's stomach. Though SRST-CPS said they would respond to the claim, they did not do so before G.K.I.W. returned home.

         The next day, school officials tried to contact SRST-CPS multiple times, but SRST-CPS did not return their calls. Eventually, G.K.I.W.'s school called the Fort Yates Police Department, but once again, no one responded to the call. The school officials were particularly concerned because there would be no school the following day (Friday) or the following Monday, and they feared for G.K.I.W.'s safety at home that long without an investigation. Despite these concerns, G.K.I.W. was allowed to return home.

         When school resumed the following Tuesday, October 11, G.K.I.W. was absent. Her sister said she was sick. School officials again called SRST-CPS and again heard nothing, with the call going directly to voicemail. They also left a message for DSS. Finally, G.K.I.W.'s school sent its own school resource officer (SRO) to conduct a welfare check at G.K.I.W.'s home. The SRO went to Makes Him First's address, but Makes Him First refused to let the SRO see G.K.I.W. She said the child became bruised by fighting with her sister and that G.K.I.W. was asleep but would be in school the next day.

         However, around 1:30 the following morning, Makes Him First brought G.K.I.W. to the hospital. The child was not breathing and was cold to the touch; bruises covered most of her body, including large bruises on her chest and thigh. Despite attempts to resuscitate G.K.I.W., she died shortly thereafter. Investigators later determined the cause of death to be a tear in the child's abdomen caused by abuse to her torso.

         Makes Him First eventually admitted to investigators that she had abused G.K.I.W. by hitting her with a shoe and punching her. She initially did not implicate St. Pierre, and St. Pierre denied abusing the child. However, after being indicted for the child's death, Makes Him First described how St. Pierre abused G.K.I.W. in the days leading up to her death. Makes Him First said that for three nights in a row-Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday-St. Pierre entered G.K.I.W.'s room late at night and abused the child. He accused G.K.I.W. of not sleeping before shining a light in her face and then physically assaulting her by pulling her hair, pushing her chest, striking her thigh, and grabbing her neck. G.K.I.W. found the injuries to her chest particularly painful, as St. Pierre had already left bruises there by abusing her throughout the week. Makes Him First admitted that on Tuesday, she and St. Pierre kept G.K.I.W. home from school because they feared getting into trouble if school staff noticed that G.K.I.W. was covered in bruises. She stated the abuse escalated throughout the week; by Tuesday night, St. Pierre was picking G.K.I.W. up by the neck and choking her repeatedly until she blacked out. Makes Him First said she began crying and begging St. Pierre to stop hurting the child, but he ignored her. At one point, St. Pierre held G.K.I.W. by the neck and shook her so severely that when he put her back down, she could not stand. G.K.I.W.'s speech then became unintelligible, and she began to behave strangely. Makes Him First asked to give the child a bath. St. Pierre poured water onto the child's face, and Makes Him First demanded they go to the hospital. G.K.I.W. turned pale, and her breathing shallowed. She began to foam at the mouth. Makes Him First attempted to assist the child's breathing while St. Pierre started the car. On the way to the hospital, St. Pierre told Makes Him First that he would not go to prison for her child, and she needed to come up with a lie to explain the child's injuries. Makes Him First explained she initially lied to investigators out of her fear of St. Pierre.

         When investigators interviewed other household members, they heard repeatedly that St. Pierre had a violent anger problem. In the days before the murder, one person asked St. Pierre and Makes Him First about G.K.I.W.'s frequent crying, and the couple said the child simply woke up that way. Another person had been told that St. Pierre had once pushed G.K.I.W. into a wall. On the day G.K.I.W. died, a witness stated St. Pierre and Makes Him First acted strangely, appearing more nervous than sad and whispering to one another. In November 2016, the government indicted St. Pierre as Makes Him First's co-defendant.

         St. Pierre eventually pled guilty to aiding and abetting second-degree murder. The plea agreement recommended a sentencing range of 292-365 months imprisonment. The parties agreed the base offense level was 38 but agreed to a two-point enhancement for a vulnerable victim pursuant to United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual, § 3A1.1(b) and a three-point reduction for timely acceptance of responsibility pursuant to USSG § 3E1.1, resulting in a total offense level of 37. They also agreed that St. Pierre's criminal history category was IV. St. Pierre waived his right to appeal on most grounds. The plea agreement expressly stated that its recommendations were not binding on the district court, and if the district court rejected its proposals, St. Pierre could not withdraw his plea. At his change-of-plea hearing, St. Pierre stated he understood that the court would determine his actual advisory Guidelines range and that it was not bound by the plea agreement's recommendation. He further said that he understood his appellate waiver would cover the majority of grounds on which he could raise an appeal.

         The presentence investigation report (PSR) prepared for St. Pierre's sentencing hearing recommended a sentencing range of 360 months to life imprisonment. In arriving at a total offense level of 41, the PSR included an enhancement for obstruction of justice pursuant to USSG § 3C1.1, to which St. Pierre objected. The probation officer who wrote the report filed an amended PSR and addendum in response to St. Pierre's objections. The addendum defended the obstruction of justice enhancement by noting Makes Him First testified that St. Pierre told her to lie about what happened to G.K.I.W. At the sentencing hearing, the government stated that it "adopt[ed]" the amended report and addendum but that it was "not asking the Court to go above" the stipulated sentencing range. As outlined in the plea agreement, the government asked the district court to grant St. Pierre a three-point reduction for timely acceptance of responsibility and joined in St. Pierre's motion for a downward departure or variance to reach the plea agreement's sentencing range.

         The district court declined to follow the plea agreement's recommendations. It found that St. Pierre's acceptance of responsibility was not timely and agreed with the PSR addendum that an obstruction of justice enhancement was appropriate. The district court stated that the prolonged and severe nature of the abuse against G.K.I.W. made this case unlike any it had seen. It adopted the PSR's recommended sentencing range and sentenced St. Pierre to 480 months imprisonment. St. Pierre appeals, contending the government ...

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