- Associated Press - Thursday, January 5, 2017

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - A Des Moines man’s Facebook photo of himself with a gun and his posts about being involved with guns and gangs were sufficient enough evidence to justify his illegal gun possession conviction, even though he claimed the gun was a fake, a federal appeals court ruled.

Although investigators didn’t find the .45 caliber handgun that Christopher Payne-Owens was holding in a photo he posted in November 2012, there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict that it was real, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday.

The justices concluded that the “use of evidence that referenced his gang ties to merely provide context for Payne-Owens’s own words about his overlapping personal involvement with guns and gangs, and also to show he had motive to possess a real gun or ammunition (even if that alleged motive derived from his gang involvement).”

Payne-Owens, now 25, was convicted in July 2015 of illegal possession of a gun by a felon and sentenced to five years and three months in prison. Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigating Payne-Owens obtained a search warrant to look at his Facebook account in January 2014. He was charged after officers found the photo and gang-related threats and conversations.

In the Facebook photo, Payne-Owens posed with a handgun in his waistband while holding up four fingers, which federal agents testified was a gang sign. Payne-Owens had prior convictions for aggravated battery, assault on a peace officer, and domestic abuse. As a convicted felon, he was prohibited from possessing guns.

Payne-Owens argued that the gun in the photos wasn’t real and that prosecutors’ statements about his alleged gang ties prejudiced the jury against him.

Prosecutors contended that his online threats and other evidence showed that he had a motive to have a real gun. The appeals court agreed, upholding the verdict.

Payne-Owens‘ attorney, James Nelsen, portrayed him as a young man who “effectively grew up in a combat zone” in Chicago Heights, Illinois, with unmarried parents who abused alcohol and drugs.

He moved to Des Moines in 2012 but failed to free himself from the violent lifestyle, Nelsen said in seeking a reduced sentence.

Payne-Owens is at a men’s prison in Pine Knot, Kentucky, records show.

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