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United States v. Thomas

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

May 15, 2015



STANWOOD R. DUVAL, Jr., District Judge.

Before the Court is Vandale Thomas' Motion for Acquittal and/or For New Trial (Doc. 65). Having reviewed the motions, memoranda, record, and relevant law, the Court finds no merit in the motion for the reasons stated herein.


Mr. Thomas was employed by the Traffic Court for the City of New Orleans and referred to his position as that of its Chief Financial Officer. (Trial Exhibit 3.44 and 3.45). In that capacity, the Government alleged that Mr. Thomas embezzled over $800, 000.00 by grossly overbilling Traffic Court for his services. On November 1, 2013, the Government handed down an indictment[1] arising out of his activities. Counts 1, 2, and 3were brought against the defendant for theft concerning programs receiving federal funds for 3separate years in violation of 18 U.S.C. ยง 666(a)(1)(A)(i)(ii). Counts 4, 5, and 6 concerned money laundering of those funds through casinos and the purchase of a high-end, luxury vehicle, and Counts 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 were for structuring transactions to evade reporting requirements in violation of 31 U.S.C. 5324(a). The matter came to trial, and on October 10, 2014, Mr. Thomas was convicted on all counts.

The instant motion filed pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 29 and 33 was filed on October 24, 2014. As specific grounds for the motion, the defendant maintains (1) there was insufficient evidence to support a finding of guilty; (2) the Court erred in its failure to dismiss the indictment as it fails to invoke the Court's jurisdiction or to state an offense; (3) the Court erred in allowing the use of summary evidence; and (4) the Court erred in allowing the use of certain Rule 404(b) evidence.


A. Motion for Acquittal

A motion for judgment of acquittal challenges "the sufficiency of the evidence to convict." United States v. Hope, 487 F.3d 224, 227 (5th Cir. 2007)(quoting United States v. Lucio, 428 F.3d 519, 522 (5th Cir.2005)). Rule 29(a) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure provides that after the government closes its evidence or after the close of all evidence, on a defendant's motion, the court "must enter a judgment of acquittal of any offense for which the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction." As the Supreme Court stated in Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979), "[t]he relevant question is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." See also United States v. Hope, 487 F.3d at 227-28. The court determines "only whether the jury made a rational decision, not whether its verdict was correct on the issue of guilt or innocence." United States v. Dean, 59 F.3d 1479, 1484 (5th Cir. 1995)(citation omitted). "[I]f the fact finder was presented with sufficient evidence to support the verdict reached, that verdict must be upheld." Lucio, 428 F.3d at 522.

In viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, the court must "consider the countervailing evidence as well as the evidence that supports the verdict in assessing sufficiency of the evidence." United States v. Moreland, 665 F.3d 137, 149 (5th Cir. 2011)(quoting United States v. Brown, 186 F.3d 661, 664 (5th Cir.1999)); see United States v. Peterson, 244 F.3d 385, 389 (5th Cir.2001) ("All evidence is considered, not just that supporting the verdict, but the evidence need not conclusively disprove alternatives; the jury is free to choose among reasonable constructions of the evidence."). The court must also draw upon " reasonable inferences from the evidence to support the verdict." United States v. Percel, 553 F.3d 903, 910 (5th Cir.2008) (quoting United States v. McDowell, 498 F.3d 308, 312 (5th Cir.2007)) (emphasis added). Though the court may not "weigh[] the evidence or assess[] the credibility of witnesses, " United States v. Lopez, 74 F.3d 575, 577 (5th Cir. 1996)(citations omitted), "[a] verdict may not rest on mere suspicion, speculation, or conjecture, or on an overly attenuated piling of inference on inference." United States v. Moreland, 665 F.3d 137, 149 (5th Cir.2011) (quoting United States v. Rojas Alvarez, 451 F.3d 320, 333-34 (5th Cir. 2006)).

Nevertheless, "[t]he evidence need not exclude every reasonable hypothesis of innocence or be wholly inconsistent with every conclusion except that of guilt, and the jury is free to choose among reasonable constructions of the evidence." United States v. Mendoza, 522 F.3d 482, 488 (5th Cir. 2008) (quoting United States v. Ortega Reyna, 148 F.3d 540, 543 (5th Cir.1998)). "Circumstances altogether inconclusive, if separately considered, may, by their number and joint operation, especially when corroborated by moral coincidences, be sufficient to constitute conclusive proof." United States v. Vasquez, 677 F.3d 685, 692 (5th Cir.2012). "But the evidence presented must allow the jury to find every element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt." United States v. Uvalle-Patricio, 478 F.3d 699, 701 (5th Cir.2007) (internal quotation and citation omitted).

B. Motion for New Trial

Rule 33 states that, upon the defendant's motion, "the court may vacate any judgment and grant a new trial if the interest of justice so requires." Fed. R. Crim. P. 33; United States v. Wall, 389 F.3d 457, 466 (5th Cir. 2004). "The burden of demonstrating that a new trial is warranted in the interest of justice' rests on the defendant." United States v. McElwee, 2010 WL 235007, *2 (W.D.La. Jan. 15, 2010) citing United States v. Soto-Silva, 129 F.3d 340, 343 (5th Cir.1997). Rule 33 motions are not favored and are viewed with great caution. United States v. Blackthorne, 34 F.3d 449, 452 (5th Cir.2004). "The grant of a new trial is necessarily an extreme measure, because it is not the role of the judge to sit as a thirteenth member of the jury." United States v. O'Keefe, 128 F.3d 885, 898 (5th Cir.1997); but see United States v. Robertson, 110 F.3d 1113, 11120 n. 11 (5th Cir.1997).

"Motions for new trial are based either on the grounds that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence or that some error was committed by the court or the prosecution which substantially affects the rights of the accused." United States v. Simms, 508 F.Supp. 1188, 1202 (W.D. La. 1980). In the Fifth Circuit, "the generally accepted standard is that a new trial ordinarily should not be granted unless there would be a miscarriage of justice or the weight of evidence preponderates against the verdict." United States v. Wright, 634 F.3d 770, 775 (5th Cir. 2011); see Wall, 389 F.3d at 466.

Unlike the Rule 29 motion where the evidence must be viewed in a light most favorable to the verdict, in determining whether to grant a Rule 33 motion, the Court "may weigh the evidence and may assess the credibility of the witnesses during its consideration of the motion for new trial." United States v. Tarango, 396 F.3d 666, 672 (5th Cir. 2005)(citing Robertson, 110 F.3d at 1117). "[T]he decision to grant or deny a motion for new trial based on the weight of the evidence is within the sound discretion of the trial court." United States v. Robertson, 110 F.3d 1113, 1118 (5th Cir. 1997). Thus, the court has broad discretion to grant a new trial "in the interest of justice." United States v. Scroggins, 379 F.3d 233 (5th Cir.2004), vacated on other grounds, 543 U.S. 1112, 125 S.Ct. 1062, 160 L.Ed.2d 1049 (2005); United States v. Antone, 603 F.2d 566 (5th Cir. 1979). Deference is given to the district court because it actually observed the demeanor of witnesses and their impact on the jury. Wall, 389 F.3d at 465; O'Keefe, 128 F.3d at 893. "[E]vidence which merely discredits or impeaches a witnesses' testimony does not justify a new trial." United States v. Blackthorne, 378 F.3d 449, 455 (5th Cir. 2004)(citation omitted). A new trial may be appropriate where the evidence only tangentially supports a guilty verdict and the evidence "preponderates sufficiently heavily against the verdict such that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred." Tarango, 396 F.3d at 672 (citations omitted). However, the court must not usurp the jury's function "or simply set aside a jury's verdict because it runs counter to result the district court believed was more appropriate." Id. at 672 (citations omitted).


A. Sufficiency of the Evidence

The defendant contends that this verdict should only be affirmed if a reasonable trier of fact could conclude from the evidence that the elements of the offense were established beyond a reasonable doubt. United States v. Delgado, 256 F.3d 264, 273 (5th Cir. 2001). The entirety of defendant's argument to support his contention that there was insufficient evidence is as follows: "Defendant reiterates his arguments submitted to the jury and submits ...

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