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United States v. Casellas-Toro

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

December 7, 2015

PABLO CASELLAS-TORO, Defendant-Appellant

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Martin G. Weinberg, with whom Kimberly Homan and Francisco Rebollo-Casalduc were on brief for appellant.

Kirby A. Heller, Attorney, Appellate Section, Criminal Division, U.S. Department of Justice, with whom Wifredo A. Ferrer, United States Attorney, Michael E. Gilfarb, Assistant United States Attorney, Andy R. Camacho, Assistant United States Attorney, Leslie R. Caldwell, Assistant Attorney General, and Sung-Hee Suh, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, were on brief for appellee.

Before Benton,[*] Sentelle,[**] and Jordan,[***] Circuit Judges.


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BENTON, Circuit Judge.

Pablo Casellas-Toro appeals from a final judgment of conviction, assigning as error the district court's denials of his motions to change venue and to suppress evidence. Having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, this court reverses and remands.


On June 17, 2012, Casellas reported he was a victim of an armed carjacking. The next day, he spoke with an FBI agent. He claimed he was driving to the shooting range when he heard gunshots break his back window. He saw two people running from the car. A third person forced him to stop his car and ordered him to move to

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the passenger's seat. Casellas said he escaped, climbing out the car window after being shot in the arm. Police found the car nearby. Casellas reported two guns missing from the car.

On June 25, Casellas gave the FBI written consent to search his car for evidence about the carjacking. The FBI took custody of the car. On July 9, the FBI scheduled the search for July 16. Casellas called the FBI four times, asking, " Have you done the search, can I have my car back?" After the search on July 16, the FBI obtained a warrant for a more detailed search of the car, which took place August 13.

On July 14, Casellas's wife was murdered. He was the prime suspect. His murder trial began December 10, 2013. The Commonwealth alleged he staged the carjacking to make the murder weapon " stolen" . A jury convicted him on January 22, 2014.

Eight days later, a federal grand jury indicted him on three counts of making false statements to a federal officer, based on his account of the carjacking. A week later, the Commonwealth court sentenced Casellas to 109 years' imprisonment for the murder. The next day, he made his first appearance in federal court.

Immediately after Casellas's wife was murdered in July 2012, the media began extensively covering the case. Casellas moved to transfer the federal trial to another venue, arguing the pretrial publicity about his murder conviction prevented a fair and impartial jury in Puerto Rico. He submitted to the district court an analysis of the publicity as well as a sampling of newspaper articles, videos, and online blogs. The district court described the publicity:

Hours after the discovery of [Casellas's wife's] body, " just about every" news media outlet in Puerto Rico descended upon Mr. Casellas's home and remained there for the day. Several tabloid news programs immediately made the murder investigation the main focus of their programming. Television, radio, internet, and print media outlets in Puerto Rico " have continuously, intensely and uninterruptedly covered the Casellas case virtually on a daily basis."
Many facts about the murder investigation were leaked to the media, including the substance of Mr. Casellas's interview with police and the condition of the victim's body at the crime scene. The media published and broadcast a number of allegedly false rumors about Mr. Casellas, including that he was a drug user, that he threatened people with firearms, that he was involved in a hit-and-run vehicle accident, and that he drunkenly bragged about assassinating the then-governor of Puerto Rico.
Although local authorities summoned Mr. Casellas to the Bayamon courthouse for the filing of charges, he was intercepted outside the courthouse, arrested, and Mirandized in public in view of media personnel who broadcast the event live. Members of the media " covered every minute of every day" of the commonwealth trial which ran from December 10, 2013, to January 22, 2014. Many reporters tweeted the trial testimony verbatim. Cameras followed the defendant, his family, and his lawyers during breaks.
Citizens celebrated outside the courthouse and an entire stadium of people attending a baseball game erupted into cheers upon news of the guilty verdict in the commonwealth case. Television coverage of the Casellas verdict received the top Nielson rating for that month. The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico permitted the media to broadcast Mr. Casellas's

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sentencing live on television, internet, and radio.
Adding to the sensational nature of the Casellas murder case is the fact that the defendant's father is a United States District Judge. The media scrutinized Judge Casellas for appearing at the scene of the crime on the morning of the murder, ...

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