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United States of America v. Mikel D. Jones and Dona Nichols Jones

February 7, 2012

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
MIKEL D. JONES AND DONA NICHOLS JONES



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schiller, J.

MEMORANDUM

Following a jury trial, Mikel Jones was convicted of conspiracy, money laundering, mail fraud, and wire fraud. His wife, Dona Nichols Jones, was convicted of conspiracy, money laundering, and wire fraud. Presently before the Court is Defendants' motion for a judgment of acquittal or, in the alternative, for a new trial. For the reasons below, the Court denies the motion.

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A. Rule 29

Rule 29 provides that "[i]f the jury has returned a guilty verdict, the court may set aside the verdict and enter an acquittal." Fed R. Crim. P. 29(c)(2). The court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution and must uphold the verdict provided that any rational trier of fact could have found guilt beyond a reasonable doubt given the available evidence. United States v. Brodie, 403 F.3d 123, 133 (3d Cir. 2005). Defendants face an uphill battle under this "highly deferential standard." United States v. Carbo, 572 F.3d 112, 119 (3d Cir. 2009). A challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting a jury verdict "should be confined to cases where the prosecution's failure is clear." United States v. Smith, 294 F.3d 473, 477 (3d Cir. 2002) (internal quotation marks omitted).

"Courts must be ever vigilant in the context of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29 not to usurp the role of the jury by weighing credibility and assigning weight to the evidence, or by substituting its judgment for that of the jury." Brodie, 403 F.3d at 133 (citing United States v. Jannotti, 673 F.2d 578, 581 (3d Cir. 1982) (en banc)).

B. Rule 33

Rule 33 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure permits a court to vacate any judgment and grant a new trial "if the interest of justice so requires." Fed. R. Civ. P. 33(a) "[M]otions for new trials are disfavored and are only granted with great caution and at the discretion of the trial court." United States v. Martinez, 69 F. App'x 513, 516 (3d Cir. 2003) (citing United States v. Allen, 554 F.2d 398, 403 (10th Cir. 1977)).

Unlike a Rule 29 motion, when considering a Rule 33 motion, a court does not view the evidence in the light most favorable to the government but rather exercises its own judgment in evaluating the government's case. United States v. Johnson, 302 F.3d 139, 150 (3d Cir. 2002). Nonetheless, "a district court 'can order a new trial on the ground that the jury's verdict is contrary to the weight of the evidence only if it believes that there is a serious danger that a miscarriage of justice has occurred-that is, that an innocent person has been convicted.'" United States v. Davis, 397 F.3d 173, 181 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Johnson, 302 F.3d at 150). A court must grant a new trial if it concludes that the trial was beset by cumulative errors that so infected the jury's deliberations that they substantially influenced the trial's outcome. United States v. Copple, 24 F.3d 535, 547 n.17 (3d Cir. 1994).

II. DISCUSSION

A. Motion for New Trial

Defendants seek a new trial because this Court refused to reopen the record to allow them to introduce an email that they claim demonstrates that a government witness lied under oath. Brian Spira testified at trial that he was unaware that Mikel Jones had purchased basketball tickets through Comcast Spectacor and, furthermore, that Spira would not have approved a line of credit for the purchase of basketball tickets. After the Government and Defendants rested and the jury began deliberations, but before the jury rendered its verdict, counsel for Mikel Jones discovered an email from Mikel Jones to Brian Spira noting that of the $75,000 Mikel Jones sought, $7,000 was for Philadelphia Eagles season tickets. The email also said: "Please note sporting teams season tickets (eagles, 76ers, Heat, Dolphins) were entered under contract when original partners were involved, and deposits totally [sic] $50,000 would be lost if not honored." While the jury was deliberating, Defendants sought to reopen the record. According to Defendants, the jury should have been allowed to consider this email, and the Government was obligated to correct Spira's false testimony.

The Court refused to reopen the record, denied Defendants' renewed motion to reopen the record filed shortly thereafter, and faced with the issue again, now holds that the Court's refusal to reopen the record does not warrant a new trial.

The decision whether to reopen the record is left to the discretion of the trial court. United States v. Coward, 296 F.3d 176, 180 (3d Cir. 2002). However, courts should be extremely reluctant to grant reopenings. United States v. Kithcart, 218 F.3d 213, 219-20 (3d Cir. 2000). When faced with a motion to reopen, a district court should primarily focus on whether the party opposing reopening would be prejudiced if the record was reopened. Id. at 220. Thus, the timing of the motion to reopen is critical; the likelihood of prejudice is greater if the case has already been submitted to the jury because the nonmoving party will not have an opportunity to respond and rebut the newly introduced evidence. Coward, 296 F.3d at 181 (citing United States v. Blankenship, 775 F.2d 735, 741 (6th Cir. 1985)). In addition to the timeliness of the motion, the district court should ...


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