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United States v. Duckett

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

December 4, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
JAMES C. DUCKETT, JR.

          RULING ON MOTION FOR JUDGMENT OF ACQUITTAL (#147) AND MOTION FOR A NEW TRIAL (#148)

          Stefan R. Underhill, United States District Judge.

         On July 6, 2017, a jury convicted James C. Duckett, Jr. of one count of conspiracy to commit mail or wire fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1349, three counts of wire fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2 and 1343, and eight counts of illegal monetary transactions in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1957.

         Duckett filed a Motion for Judgment of Acquittal (doc. # 147) in which he argues that, pursuant to Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, I should issue a judgment of acquittal because the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to sustain a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt on all counts of conviction. Specifically, Duckett argues that the government's case substantially relied upon the testimony of Duckett's indicted co-defendant and co-conspirator, Mitchell Anderson, and the jury erred in crediting that testimony.

         Duckett also filed a motion for a Motion for a New Trial (doc. # 148) in which he argues that, pursuant to Rule 33 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, I should order a new trial because he was prejudiced by (1) admission of bad act evidence and (2) an error in the jury instructions.

         For the following reasons, Duckett's Motion for Judgment of Acquittal (#147) and Motion for a New Trial (#148) are denied.

         I. Background

         The facts and circumstances of the case arise out of a conspiracy between Duckett and Anderson to defraud the City of Hartford (“the City”) in connection with its project to redevelop a soccer stadium in the City. Anderson, on behalf on his company Premier Sports Management Group LLC (“PSMG”), entered into a contract with the City in which PSMG agreed to redevelop Dillon Stadium, construct a new multi-purpose athletic field in Colt Park, and find a professional soccer team franchise to be based in the Stadium. Duckett, on behalf of his company Black Diamond Consulting Group (“Black Diamond”), became a part of Anderson's project as a potential majority owner for the soccer team that was to be brought to the City. Duckett represented to Anderson and the City that he and his company had the financial resources to fund both the team and the Dillon Stadium construction.

         PSMG, which later purported to merge with Black Diamond, retained subcontractors to perform the work on the Dillon Stadium project. The subcontractors submitted invoices to PSMG, which would then invoice the City and add a 5% management fee, consistent with the terms of the contract. The City would then issue a check to PSMG in payment of the invoices for PSMG to disperse to the subcontractors. Beginning in February 2015, Anderson and Duckett wrongfully retained some of the funds issued by the City rather than paying the entire invoice amount to the subcontractors. Additionally, Anderson and Duckett received proposals from a Florida design firm, Big Span Structures (“Big Span”), which included the estimated cost of their services on the project and/or invoices for projects unrelated to Dillon Stadium, which Anderson and Duckett falsely submitted as invoices to the City and retained those funds.

         On July 6, 2017, the jury found Duckett guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, three counts of wire fraud, and seven counts of illegal monetary transactions. He filed the motions at issue here on August 21, 2017.

         II. Motion for Judgment of Acquittal (#147)

         A. Standard

         Pursuant to Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, “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 defendant seeking to overturn a conviction on the ground that the evidence was insufficient bears a heavy burden.” United States v. Best, 219 F.3d 192, 200 (2d Cir. 2000), cert. denied, 121 S.Ct. 1733 (2001). The reviewing court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution and must reject the sufficiency challenge if it concludes that “any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.” Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979) (emphasis in original). See also United States v. Payton, 159 F.3d 49, 56 (2d Cir. 1998) (“[t]he ultimate question is not whether [the court believes] the evidence adduced at trial established defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but whether any rational trier of fact could so find” [emphasis in original.]).

         A reviewing court must consider the evidence as a whole, not in isolation, and must defer to the jury's determination of the weight of the evidence, credibility of witnesses, and competing inferences that can be drawn from the evidence. Best, 219 F.3d at 200. The district court must “assum[e] that the jury resolved all questions of witness credibility and competing inferences in favor of the prosecution.” United States v. Abu-Jihaad, 630 F.3d 102, 134 (2d Cir. 2010) (internal citations omitted); see also United States v. Morrison, 153 F.3d 34, 49 (2d Cir. 1998) (“We defer to the jury's determination of the weight of the evidence and the credibility of the witnesses, and to the jury's choice of competing inferences that can be drawn from the evidence.”). The jury is “exclusively responsible” for determinations of witness credibility; United States v. Strauss, 999 F.2d 692, 696 (2d Cir. 1993); and the court must be “careful to avoid usurping the role of the jury since Rule 29 does not provide the trial court with an opportunity to substitute its determination of . . . the weight of the evidence and the reasonable inferences to be drawn for that of the jury.” United States v. Cassese, 428 F.3d 92, 98 (2d Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court should defer to the jury's credibility assessments and intrude upon that function only where “exceptional circumstances can be demonstrated” such as when “testimony is patently incredible or defies physical realities.” United States v. Sanchez, 969 F.2d 1409, 1413 (2d Cir. 1992).

         B. Discussion

         1. Conspiracy to Commit Mail or Wire Fraud (Count 1)

         Duckett was charged in Count One with conspiracy to commit mail or wire fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1349, which provides: “Any person who attempts or conspires to commit any offense under this chapter shall be subject to the same penalties as those prescribed for the offense, the commission of which was the object of the attempt or conspiracy.”

         In order to convict a defendant of criminal conspiracy, “the Government must show that two or more persons entered into a joint enterprise for an unlawful purpose, with awareness of its general nature and extent.” United States v. Torres, 604 F.3d 58, 65 (2d Cir. 2010). “The gist of a conspiracy is an agreement between two or more participants to achieve a particular illegal end.” United States v. Santos, 541 F.3d 63, 71 (2d Cir. 2008). “The Government's proof of an agreement does not require evidence of a formal or express agreement; it is enough that the parties have a tacit understanding to carry out the prohibited conduct.” United States v. Nusraty, 867 F.2d 759, 763 (2d Cir. 1989) (internal quotation marks omitted). The evidence must permit a rational jury to find the following beyond a reasonable doubt: “(1) the existence of the conspiracy charged; (2) that the defendant had knowledge of the conspiracy; and (3) that the defendant intentionally joined the conspiracy.” Santos, 541 F.3d at 70 (internal citations omitted). “When a defendant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence in a conspiracy case, ‘deference to the jury's findings is especially important … because a conspiracy by its very nature is a secretive operation, and it is a rare case where all aspects of a conspiracy can be laid bare in court with the precision of a surgeon's scalpel.'” Id. (citing United States v. Morgan, 385 F.3d 196, 204 (2d Cir. 2004)).

         The object of the conspiracy charged in Count One was mail or wire fraud. The relevant statute on wire fraud is 18 U.S.C. § 1343, which provides, in relevant part:

Whoever, having devised or intended to devise any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises, transmits or causes to be transmitted by means of wire radio or television communication in interstate or foreign commerce, any writings, signs, signals, pictures or sounds for the purpose of executing such scheme or artifice shall be [guilty of wire fraud].

         The relevant statute on mail fraud is 18 U.S.C. § 1341 which provides, in relevant part:

Whoever, having devised or intended to devise any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises … places in any post office or authorized depository for mail matter, any matter or thing whatever to be sent or delivered by the Postal Service, or deposits or causes to be deposited any matter or thing whatever to be sent or delivered by any private or commercial interstate carrier, or takes or receives therefrom, any such matter or thing, or knowingly causes to be delivered by mail or such carrier according to the direction thereon, or at the place at which it is directed to be delivered by the person to whom it is addressed, any such matter or thing, shall be [guilty of mail fraud].

         Here, there was ample evidence that the charged mail and/or wire fraud conspiracy existed. Anderson testified that he and Duckett agreed to submit invoices provided to them from Big Span to the City that they knew were fraudulent, and then later agreed to retain the proceeds from those invoices, rather than disperse them to the subcontractors who were owed that money. [Anderson Direct Tr. 6/27/17, 94; Anderson Direct Tr. 6/28/17, 10, 18; Ex. 8A, 9C, 10B] This evidence permitted the jury to infer reasonably that Duckett and Anderson conspired to defraud the City and the PSMG subcontractors by obtaining their money.

         “Once the existence of a conspiracy has been established, the government must prove that the person charged knew of the existence of the scheme alleged in the indictment and knowingly joined and participated in it.” Santos, 541 F.3d at 71 (internal quotation marks omitted). The government must prove that the defendant had knowledge of the conspiracy charged, and intended to join it. Id. Here, there was sufficient evidence upon which a rational jury could have based a finding that Duckett knew of the conspiracy and intended to join it. The jury heard testimony from Rick Laxton, a sales manager at Big Span, that he or his secretary emailed from Florida three invoices to Duckett and Anderson at Duckett's request. [Laxton Direct Tr. 6/27/17, 24; see Ex. 8, 9, 10] The jury also heard testimony from Anderson that both he and Duckett knew that the invoices did not relate to any work Big Span had done on the Dillon Stadium project, but that Anderson and Duckett agreed to submit the invoices to the City for payment anyway along with a 5% PSMG fee. [Anderson Direct Tr. 6/27/17, 94; Anderson Direct Tr. 6/28/17, 17, 18; Ex. 8A, 9C, 10B] The jury also heard testimony from Anderson that when PSMG was paid by the City on those invoices, Duckett retained some of those funds for himself and his associates, and neither Big Span nor any of the other contractors were given the money due to them under the invoices.

         Viewing that evidence in its totality, and in the light most favorable to the government, a rational jury could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that Duckett was a knowing participant in a conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The jury was free to credit Anderson's testimony, and I must defer to its credibility determinations. This is not a situation where there are “exceptional circumstances” that allow me to intrude upon the jury's role. Sanchez, 969 F.2d at 1413.

         Accordingly, Duckett's Motion for Judgment of Acquittal as it relates to his ...


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