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4th Circuit upholds MS-13 member’s death sentence

RICHMOND, Va. — A federal appeals court has upheld a gang member’s death sentence for killing two brothers at a North Carolina restaurant, deciding, for the first time in the circuit, that the Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses does not apply to the sentence-selection phase under the federal death penalty act.

A divided three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond on Wednesday rejected several claims by Alejandro Enrique Ramirez Umaña. The MS-13 gang member claimed his statements to police were coerced, that the prosecutor made prejudicial remarks and that his mental retardation defense at sentencing was improperly rejected.

In a blistering dissent, Judge Roger Gregory said the introduction of transcripts of police interviews with accomplices linking Umaña to two uncharged murders in Los Angeles violated his rights under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment.

“The majority today strips a defendant of his Sixth Amendment right to confront his accusers. Further, it denies this right in a proceeding in which a jury must decide whether a human being is fit to live,” Gregory wrote, calling it “the most momentous decision a jury can make.”

“Umaña is being sent to his death based on accusations by self-interested accomplices — self-interested accomplices whose testimony, at least in part, was contradicted by independent witnesses,” Gregory wrote.

Umaña was the first MS-13 member sentenced to death in the United States. He was convicted of the 2007 murders of Ruben Garcia Salinas and Manuel Garcia Salinas, who were shot “at point-blank range in a restaurant in Greensboro, North Carolina, because Umaña perceived that the brothers had insulted Umaña’s gang,” Judge Paul V. Niemeyer wrote for himself and Judge G. Steven Agee.

In 2011, the 4th Circuit decided that the Confrontation Clause did not apply to the sentencing phase of a non-capital case. However, Gregory wrote, “death is different.”

The case is U.S. v. Umaña, No. 10-6.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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