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United States v. Church

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

April 25, 2017

PARIS CHURCH, a/k/a “Pay May, ” a/k/a “Pay, ” RONELL WHITEHEAD, a/k/a “R, ” and SPENCER PAYNE, a/k/a “Boodine, ” a/k/a “Nur.”


          Gerald Austin McHugh United States District Judge.

         Defendants Ronell Whitehead, Spencer Payne, and Paris Church have filed supplemental motions to set aside their convictions pursuant to Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure 29 and 33. Because I find that the government presented sufficient evidence to support the guilty verdicts rendered against all three men, Defendants' motions will be denied.


         In September 2014, the government charged 22 individuals, including Whitehead, Payne, and Church, with participating in a drug-trafficking ring in Chester, Pennsylvania. Because the alleged criminal enterprise was centered in the vicinity of Rose and Upland Streets, the government dubbed it the Rose and Upland Drug Trafficking Group (Rose Upland Group). The government's case against the Rose Upland Group grew out of a two-year investigation by federal, state, and local law enforcement, which featured over 60 controlled buys, thousands of hours of video and visual surveillance, extensive use of pen registers, and numerous wire-taps.

         On March 8, 2016, after a nearly month-long trial, a jury found Payne, Whitehead, and Church guilty of conspiracy to distribute narcotics. The jury also convicted Payne and Church of various distribution charges, while Whitehead pleaded guilty to distributing narcotics.[1] All three defendants now challenge their convictions. Payne broadly claims that there was insufficient evidence as to all counts against him. Church claims that the evidence at trial did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt (1) that he conspired to distribute narcotics, (2) that he sold drugs on the dates alleged, or (3) that he sold drugs within 1, 000 feet of a protected location (in this case, Widener University). Whitehead's claims relate only to his conspiracy conviction. He argues both that the government failed to establish the required elements of conspiracy and that there was insufficient evidence for the jury to conclude that 280 grams of cocaine base (crack) and 500 grams of cocaine were involved in the conspiracy and were known or attributable to him.


         Church and Whitehead bring their post-verdict challenge on Rule 29 motions for judgement of acquittal. Payne seeks a new trial pursuant to Rule 33. Under Rule 29, “the court on the defendant's motion must enter a judgment of acquittal of any offense for which the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 29. Because “we trust jurors to judge the evidence, ” courts review sufficiency of evidence under a “highly deferential” standard and “will overturn a verdict only if no reasonable juror could accept the evidence as sufficient to support the conclusion of the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” United States v. Caraballo-Rodriguez, 726 F.3d 418, 430-31 (3d Cir. 2013). Under this standard, “[w]hile evidence proffered at trial may be consistent with multiple possibilities, ” the role of a reviewing court “is to uphold the jury verdict-and not to usurp the role of the jury-as long as it passes the ‘bare rationality' test.” Id. at 432.

         Rule 33 empowers district courts to “vacate any judgment and grant a new trial if the interest of justice so requires.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 33. “A district court can order a new trial on the ground that the jury's verdict is contrary to the weight of 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. Salahuddin, 765 F.3d 329, 346 (3d Cir. 2014). “[M]otions for a new trial based on the weight of the evidence are not favored [and] . . . are to be granted sparingly and only in exceptional cases.” Id.


         All three Defendants fail to carry their burdens under the relevant legal standards. Without restating the government's entire case, the essential evidence against Defendants is as follows.

         A. The Government's Evidence Against Payne and Whitehead

         At trial the government produced evidence that Payne and Whitehead, acting with their fellow members of the Rose Upland Group, jointly purchased drugs, pooled their inventory, split sale proceeds when necessary to meet customer demand, made use of shared stash houses and alleyways to store drugs, and helped one another avoid police detection during sales. Taken together, this record provides compelling evidence that Payne and Whitehead were part of a coordinated effort to traffic in narcotics.[2]

         In building its case, the government relied in part on testimony by cooperating defendant William Dorsey. Dorsey testified that he would purchase 125-gram quantities of cocaine (known as “points”) on behalf of Whitehead and co-defendants Braheem Edwards and Michael Lewis. Tr. 2/25 at 217-18. Dorsey claimed that on “between five and eight” separate occasions spanning a period of several months, id. at 227, he bought eight to sixteen points (1, 000 - 2, 000 grams) and that Whitehead, Edwards, and Lewis would “break[] them down, selling them in ounces and stuff like that, ” id. at 219-20. Dorsey further testified that he knew Payne to sell powder and crack cocaine, id. at 238, that he would refer customers to Payne when he ran out of product to sell, that he would split sales with Payne, Tr. 2/29 at 5-6, and that he would occasionally “front” drugs to Payne-meaning that he would supply product upfront with the expectation of later payment, Tr. 2/26 at 129-30. Similarly, Dorsey stated that Whitehead once fronted him 28 grams of power cocaine, Tr. 2/29 at 13, and that Whitehead would sometimes split sales with him, Tr. 2/26 at 47. He also maintained that he, Whitehead, Payne, and their fellow members of the Rose Upland Group acted as lookouts for police while others were making sales. Tr. 2/26 at 46-47.

         Two other cooperating defendants, Naim Butler and Javaughn Anderson, corroborated Dorsey's account of a coordinated drug trafficking operation around the intersection of Rose and Upland Streets. Bulter testified that he sold 3.5 grams of crack cocaine to Payne for resale in $5 increments, Tr. 3/2 at 271-72, that he had seen Whitehead selling bags of crack approximately 100 times during the summer of 2012, id. at 274-75, and that he acted as a lookout for Payne and Whitehead and expected them to do the same for him, id. at 274-76, 280-81. Anderson testified that, on four or five occasions, Whitehead supplied co-defendant Breon Burton with 28 grams of cocaine for resale. Tr. 3/7 at 50-51. Anderson also described drug dealers on Rose Street as ‚Äútogether and organized . . . as far as like ...

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