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United States v. Blunt

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

December 21, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
RENITA BLUNT

          MEMORANDUM

          SYLVIA H. RAMBO UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Presently before the court is Defendant Renita Blunt's motion for judgement of acquittal or, in the alternative, for a new trial (Doc. 140), following her trial and guilty jury verdict on one count of aggravated identity theft and one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. For the reasons stated herein, the motion will be denied.

         I. Relevant Facts and Procedural History

         On November 9, 2016, Blunt was charged in a thirty-one count Second Superseding Indictment with twelve counts of mail fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1341, ten counts of money laundering in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(1)(B)(i), three counts of aggravated identity theft in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1028A(a)(1), one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1349, and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(h). (Doc. 63.) Blunt and co-defendant Earl Hall (“Hall”) were accused of perpetrating a scheme between January 2013 and June 2015, which involved submitting counterfeit military discharge certificates, bearing the names, dates of birth, and social security numbers of eleven individuals, to agencies in various states in order to fraudulently collect unemployment compensation benefits for ex-service members.

         Trial commenced on March 6, 2017. During trial, Blunt moved for judgment of acquittal pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29 on all counts, but the court denied the motion. Prior to trial, Blunt submitted a proposed jury instruction for the defense of duress. (Doc. 98, pp. 5-7.) The Government objected to this instruction and, after hearing arguments on the issue, the court ruled that the duress instruction would not be included in the jury charge. At the time the jury was charged, Blunt noted her objection to the court's ruling. On March 10, 2017, the jury found Blunt guilty of Count 26 for aggravated identity theft and Count 30 for conspiracy to commit mail fraud. (Doc. 131.) She was acquitted of Counts 1 through 22, 28, 29, and 31. (Id.) The jury also determined that Blunt was subject to asset forfeiture in the amount of $1, 026.00 (Id.)

         At trial, the Government introduced an unemployment compensation benefit for ex-service members (“UCX”) claim submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry (“PA L&I”) under the identity of Shawnta Williams. (Gov. Ex. 7.) Included in this claim was a DD Form 214, which is a military discharge certificate, in the name of Shawnta L. Williams with a date of birth of April 16, 1986. (Id.) The information provided by PA L&I indicates that Shawnta Williams' claim was opened on January 11, 2014, and closed on August 1, 2014, with total payments of $14, 638. (Id.) Calls were made in reference to this claim on January 22, 2014, January 24, 2014, March 31, 2014, and June 25, 2014. (Id.) The Government presented a recording from the June 25, 2014 call at trial. (Gov. Ex. 69.)

         Special Agent Syreeta Scott (“SA Scott”) of the United States Department of Labor, Office of Inspector General testified that she interviewed Blunt on March 3, 2016, at which time Blunt admitted to posing as Shawnta Williams during the June 25, 2014 call. (Trial Tr. Mar. 8, 2017, at p. 112.) Further, Blunt stipulated that she made the June 25, 2014 call. (Gov. Ex. 100.) During direct-examination, Blunt testified that Hall communicated to her that Shawnta Williams was not a real person and that Blunt's family would be physically harmed if she did not make the phone call posing as Shawnta Williams. (Trial Tr. Mar. 9, 2017, at pp. 57-59.) However, on cross-examination, Blunt admitted she told SA Scott during her interview on March 3, 2016, that Hall informed her that Shawnta Williams was his cousin. (Id. at 76-77.)

         The Government introduced Blunt's phone records and a summary chart of those records indicating thirty-six phone calls were made from Blunt's phone to phone numbers associated with PA L&I, the Pennsylvania Office of Treasurer, and the Hawaii Department of Labor between January 16, 2013, and September 22, 2014. (See Gov. Exs. 54 & 83.) Regarding the DD Form 214 for Shawnta Williams, Brian Hewitt, United States Army Human Resources Command, testified that there was no record of an individual possessing the personal identifiers of Shawnta Williams having served in the Army. (Trial Tr. Mar. 8, 2017, at p. 86.) Lastly, the Government introduced a certified California Department of Motor Vehicles driver's license in the name of Shawnta Denise Williams with a date of birth of August 16, 1986, which corresponded with the UCX claims submitted in that name. (Gov. Exs. 7 & 53; Trial Tr. Mar. 8, 2017, at pp. 70-71.)

         II. Legal Standard

         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29, the Court “must enter a judgment of acquittal of any offense for which the evidence is insufficient to sustain the conviction.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(a). The Third Circuit has stated that the relevant inquiry in deciding a motion for judgment of acquittal is “whether, after reviewing 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.” United States v. McIntyre, 612 F. App'x 77, 78 (3d Cir. 2015) (quoting United States v. Caraballo-Rodriguez, 726 F.3d 418, 424-25 (3d Cir. 2013) (en banc) (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 318-19 (1979)).

         Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 33 provides that “the court may vacate any judgment and grant a new trial if the interest of justice so requires.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 33(a). 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. Johnson, 302 F.3d 139, 150 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting United States v. Santos, 20 F.3d 280, 285 (7th Cir. 1994)).

         A new trial should only be granted sparingly and in exceptional situations. United States v. Silveus, 542 F.3d 993, 1005 (3d Cir. 2008); United States v. Brennan, 326 F.3d 176, 189 (3d Cir. 2003). Exceptional situations include those in which trial errors, “either individually or in combination, ‘so infected the jury's deliberations that they had a substantial influence on the outcome of the trial.'” United States v. Thornton, 1 F.3d 149, 156 (3d Cir. 1993); United States v. Amirnazmi, 648 F.Supp.2d 718, 719-20 (E.D. Pa. 2009).

         III. Discussion

         In her motion seeking either judgment of acquittal or a new trial, Blunt requests that the court set aside the guilty verdict to the aggravated identity theft and conspiracy to commit mail fraud charges, as well as the forfeiture finding. Blunt also argues that the court erred by denying her requested ...


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