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United States v. Hampton

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 15, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
TERRELL HAMPTON, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          GERALD J. PAPPERT, J.

         On September 20, 2016, the grand jury returned a Second Superseding Indictment charging Terrell Hampton, along with his father Kenneth Hampton and Kenneth's fiancée Roxanne Mason, of participating in a scheme to fraudulently obtain apparent title to vacant properties, and to profit from the thefts by occupying, selling and mortgaging those properties. (ECF No. 124.) Count One charged the Defendants with conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Counts Two through Eighteen charged them with wire fraud based on various communications between Kenneth and his co-conspirators, along with his brother Ellis Hampton, [1] including several recorded telephone calls made by Kenneth while he was in federal prison. Counts Nineteen and Twenty charged the Defendants with aggravated identity theft.

         On May 18, 2017, Mason pled guilty to Counts 1, 2 through 10, 12 through 14, 16, and 18 through 20. (ECF No. 248.) She was sentenced on October 6. (ECF Nos. 312, 313.) Kenneth went to trial on June 6. (ECF No. 275.) Terrell was scheduled to be tried along with his father but was injured in a car accident shortly before trial began and was accordingly severed from Kenneth's trial. (ECF No. 270.) Kenneth was found guilty of all charges against him on June 14 and was sentenced on November 22. (ECF Nos. 284, 286, 330, 331.)

         Terrell's trial began January 9, 2018. (ECF No. 353.) On January 19, the jury convicted him on Counts 1 - 16, 19 and 20 and found him not guilty on Counts 17 and 18.[2] (ECF Nos. 361, 363.) He filed a timely motion for acquittal, or in the alternative for a new trial, [3] arguing that the evidence presented to the jury was insufficient to sustain the verdict. (Def.'s Mot. at 1, ECF No. 375.) He argues (1) there was a reasonable explanation for his conduct, (2) he was not a willing and voluntary member of the conspiracy, (3) a lack of physical evidence found at his house supports his innocence, and (4) he acted in a manner inconsistent with guilt. (Mot. at 2.) Terrell points to any evidence from the trial that could possibly support these contentions, which repeat his primary trial theory that he was merely pursuing, albeit unsuccessfully, a legitimate real estate business. The Court denies the Motion because the evidence of Terrell's guilt was more than sufficient to sustain his conviction and there is no danger, serious or otherwise, that the jury's well-supported verdict amounted to a miscarriage of justice.

         I A Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure provides that 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(a). In considering the motion, the court must “‘review the record in the light most favorable to the prosecution to determine whether any rational trier of fact could have found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt based on the available evidence.'” United States v. Smith, 294 F.3d 473, 476 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting United States v. Wolfe, 245 F.3d 257, 261 (3d Cir. 2001)). The court must “presume that the jury properly evaluated credibility of the witnesses, found the facts, and drew reasonable inferences.” United States v. Iafelice, 978 F.2d 92, 94 (3d Cir. 1992) (citing United States v. Coleman, 811 F.2d 804, 807 (3d Cir. 1987)); see also United States v. Norris, 753 F.Supp.2d 492, 501 (E.D. Pa. 2010) (“The court may not ‘usurp the role of the jury' by weighing the evidence or assessing the credibility of witnesses.” (quoting United States v. Brodie, 403 F.3d 123, 133 (3d Cir. 2005))). The burden on the defendant is “extremely high” when challenging the sufficiency of the evidence, Norris, 753 F.Supp.2d at 501 (quoting United States v. Iglesias, 535 F.3d 150, 155 (3d Cir. 2008)), and the jury verdict must be sustained “as long as it does not ‘fall below the threshold of bare rationality, '” United States v. Caraballo-Rodriguez, 726 F.3d 418, 431 (3d Cir. 2013) (quoting Coleman v. Johnson, 566 U.S. 650, 656 (2012)). See also Brodie, 403 F.3d at 134 (“A finding of insufficiency should be ‘confined to cases where the prosecution's failure is clear.'” (quoting Smith, 294 F.3d at 477)).

         B

         A more deferential standard of review applies to motions under Rule 33, which permits the Court to grant a motion for a new trial “if the interest of justice so requires.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 33(a); see also United States v. Johnson, 302 F.3d 139, 150 (3d Cir. 2002) (“Unlike an insufficiency of the evidence claim, when a district court evaluates a Rule 33 motion it does not view the evidence favorably to the Government, but instead exercises its own judgment in assessing the Government's case.”). Courts may grant a new trial if “the verdict is against the weight of the evidence[, ]” United States v. Fattah, 223 F.Supp.3d 336, 342 (E.D. Pa. 2016) (citing Johnson, 302 F.3d at 150), and “must consider whether there is ‘a serious danger that a miscarriage of justice has occurred[, ]'” id. (quoting United States v. Silveus, 542 F.3d 993, 1004-05 (3d Cir. 2008)). Rule 33 motions are not favored and should be “granted sparingly and only in exceptional cases.” United States v. Salahuddin, 765 F.3d 329, 346 (3d Cir. 2014) (internal quotation and citation omitted); see also United States v. Ponton, 337 Fed.Appx. 179, 181 (3d Cir. 2009) (providing that granting Rule 33 motions is “proper only when . . . the jury's verdict resulted in a miscarriage of justice or where the verdict, on the record, cries out to be overturned or shocks our conscience”).

         C

         A defendant is guilty of conspiracy under Section 371 if he or she agrees with another “to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof” and one or more conspirators takes an act in furtherance of the conspiracy. 18 U.S.C. § 371. Accordingly, to convict a defendant of conspiracy, the jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt “‘a unity of purpose between the alleged conspirators, [] intent to achieve a common goal, and an agreement to work together toward that goal.'” Smith, 294 F.3d at 477 (quoting United States v. Gibbs, 190 F.3d 188, 197 (3d Cir. 1999)).

         The elements of conspiracy “can be proven entirely by circumstantial evidence.” Brodie, 403 F.3d at 134 (citing United States v. Kapp, 781 F.2d 1008, 1010 (3d Cir. 1986)). In fact, “‘it is not unusual that the government will not have direct evidence'” as “‘[k]nowledge is often proven by circumstances.'” Caraballo-Rodriguez, 726 F.3d at 431 (quoting Iafelice, 978 F.2d at 98); see also Brodie, 403 F.3d at 134 (“Indeed, the very nature of the crime of conspiracy is such that it often may be established only by indirect and circumstantial evidence.”).

         Further, “a conspirator does not have to be aware of all aspects or details of the conspiracy[, ]” Fattah, 223 F.Supp.3d at 352 (citing United States v. Bailey, 840 F.3d 99, 108 (3d Cir. 2016)), and can be found guilty of an offense committed by a co-conspirator if the offense was “reasonably foreseeable” or reasonably anticipated by the defendant and furthered the objectives of the conspiracy, United States v. Ramos, 147 F.3d 281, 286 (3d Cir. 1998) (“A defendant convicted of conspiracy is liable for the reasonably foreseeable acts of his coconspirators committed in furtherance of the conspiracy.” (citing Pinkerton v. United States, 328 U.S. 640 (1946))).

         II

         A

         The record evidence clearly established that Terrell served as his father's principal co-conspirator in carrying out the scheme to illegally obtain and profit from properties to which they had ...


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