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United States v. Grados

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 6, 2017

STEVEN P. GRADOS, Defendant.



         I. Introduction

         This case arises from charges that Defendant forged the signature of a Judge of the United States District Court and committed two counts of mail fraud in an attempt to stop monthly payments of part of his State Police pension to his ex-wife. Trial in this matter was held from February 21, 2017, through February 24, 2017. After deliberations, the jury returned a guilty verdict as to all three counts. Presently before the Court are Defendant's motion for a new trial and supplemental motion for a new trial based upon the Government's posing of guilt-assuming hypotheticals to several character witnesses, an alleged violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), as well as the additional argument that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. (ECF Nos. 49, 51.) For the reasons explained below, the Court will deny Defendant's motions.

         II. Background

         On March 22, 2016, the grand jury issued a three-count Indictment, charging Defendant with two counts of mail fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1341, and one count of forging the signature of a Judge of the United States District Court, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §505. (ECF No. 1.)

         The Government alleged that the Defendant, a former Pennsylvania State Trooper, devised a scheme to defraud the organization which manages state pensions, the State Employees Retirement System (SERS), and his ex-wife. (ECF No. 1.) Specifically, it was alleged that he composed a fraudulent opinion and order and forged the signature of the former Chief Judge of the Western District of Pennsylvania, the Honorable Gary L. Lancaster. Judge Lancaster had presided over a civil lawsuit the Defendant previously filed alleging a conspiracy to deprive him of his rights during the divorce proceedings. The fraudulent opinion and order, which the Defendant allegedly mailed to SERS in February of 2014, purports to order SERS to stop paying a portion of his pension to his ex-wife, which had been ordered by an Illinois judge following divorce proceedings between the two. After SERS did not cease payment to his ex-wife, the Defendant sent another copy of the fraudulent opinion and order in May of 2014, along with a handwritten note, which he signed, asking SERS to cease payment pursuant to the order. (Government Exhibit 7.1.)

         At trial, the Government called a total of 11 witnesses, including FBI agents, a hand-writing expert, the Defendant's first ex-wife, Karen, her divorce attorney from Illinois, Judge Lancaster's former courtroom deputy and one of his former law clerks. (ECF No. 45.) The Government's most important witness was the Defendant's second wife, with whom he is now estranged, Carlese Grados. Carlese Grados, who received an informal promise of immunity from the Government, testified that she helped the Defendant type the opinion and order while he dictated it to her over the course of several months. She then testified that once he was satisfied, he had her print it out, held it up against the window to trace Judge Lancaster's signature[1], and then, wearing gloves, put it in an envelope. Carlese Grados testified that she and the Defendant then drove to two post offices before the Defendant had her mail the opinion and order to SERS.

         The defense theory at trial was that Carlese Grados acted alone and that the Defendant had been set up. As part of his case, the Defendant testified, as did four relatively brief character witnesses. (ECF No. 45.) Defendant testified that he never received a copy of Judge Lancaster's genuine order dismissing the case, and that several years later he received a copy of the fraudulent order in the mail. Defendant denied mailing the first copy of the fraudulent order to SERS in February 2014, but admitted he sent the order to SERS the second time in May 2014, thinking it was genuine and thus that he was entitled to have payments from his pension to his ex-wife stopped.

         On February 24, 2017, after a four-day trial, a jury found Defendant guilty of all three counts. (ECF No. 43.) Defendant now moves for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 33. (ECF Nos. 49, 51.) Defendant's motion and supplemental motion make three principle arguments. (1) That the prosecution committed misconduct by asking several defense witnesses guilt-assuming hypotheticals which Defendant avers resulted in substantial prejudice. (2) That the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence based on purported inconsistencies between Carlese Grados's testimony and other evidence in the case. (3) That the prosecution committed a Brady violation in failing to turn over the original order sent to SERS. The motions have been fully briefed and are now ripe for disposition. (ECF Nos. 50, 51, 54, 55, 56.)

         III. Applicable Law

         A. Motion for a New Trial, Rule 33

         Pursuant to Rule 33 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, "the court may vacate any judgment and grant a new trial if the interest of justice so requires." FED. R. Crim. P. 33(a). Pursuant to this rule, a District Court can order a new trial if the jury's verdict is contrary to the weight of evidence. United States v. Salahuddin, 765 F.3d 329, 346 (3d Cir. 2014). A court evaluating a Rule 33 motion "does not view the evidence favorably to the Government, but instead exercises its own judgment in assessing the Government's case." United States v. Johnson, 302 F.3d 139, 150 (3d Cir. 2002). Rule 33 motions "are not favored and should be 'granted sparingly and only in exceptional cases.'" United States v. Silveus, 542 F.3d 993, 1005 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Gov't of V.I. v. Derricks, 810 F.2d 50, 55 (3d Cir. 1987)). A new trial should be granted on the grounds that the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence only where the court "believes that there is a serious danger that a miscarriage of justice has occurred - that is, that an innocent person has been convicted." Salahuddin, 765 F.3d at 346 (quotations and citations omitted).

         B. Motion for a New Trial, Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963)

         Pursuant to Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), the Government must provide a defendant with exculpatory material, including impeachment material, that it either possesses or could obtain through due diligence. See Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963); Giglio v. United States, 405 U.S. 150, 155 (1972). To establish a Brady violation sufficient to warrant a new trial, "a defendant must show: (1) evidence was suppressed; (2) the suppressed evidence was favorable to the defense; and (3) the suppressed evidence was material either to guilt or to punishment." United States v. Pelullo, 399 F.3d 197, 209 (3d Cir. 2005). The failure to provide such evidence is a violation of due process, "irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution." Brady, 373 U.S. at 87.

         Evidence is not suppressed if the defendant could have obtained it "from other sources by exercising reasonable diligence" or "either knew or should have known of the essential facts permitting him to take advantage of any exculpatory evidence." United States v. Perdomo, 929 F.2d 967, 973 (3d Cir. 1991); see also Wilson v. Beard, 589 F.3d 651, 659 (3d Cir. 2009) ("The purpose of Brady is not to require the prosecution to disclose all possibly favorable evidence to the defense but to make certain that the defendant will not be denied access to evidence which would ensure him a fair trial.").

         If the Government suppressed evidence favorable to the defendant, the defendant must also demonstrate that the evidence is material. Pelullo, 399 F.3d at 209. Evidence is material when "there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419, 434-35 (1995). Reasonable probability is "a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 682 (1985). "A defendant need not demonstrate that after discounting the inculpatory evidence in light of the undisclosed evidence, there would not have been enough left to convict." Kyles, 514 U.S. at 434-35. A showing of materiality therefore "does not require demonstration by a preponderance that disclosure . . . would have resulted ultimately in the defendant's acquittal." Id. at 435. Rather, the defendant must show that "the favorable evidence could reasonably be taken to put the whole case in such a different light as to undermine confidence in the verdict." Id. In determining whether the defendant has established materiality, a court must evaluate the cumulative effect of the undisclosed evidence. Id. at 436-37.

         When "reliability of a given witness may well be determinative of guilt or innocence, " the nondisclosure of evidence affecting credibility, or impeachment evidence, falls within the scope of Brady. See Giglio, 405 U.S. at 154 (internal quotations omitted). Accordingly, "[m]aterials that must be disclosed are those . . . that might affect the jury's judgment of the credibility of a crucial prosecution witness." United States v. Hill, 976 F.2d 132, 134-135 (3d Cir. 1992).

         III. Discussion

         A. Defendant's Motion for a New Trial ...

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