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United States v. Lee

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 6, 2019

UNITED STATES
v.
DOUGLAS LEE

          RULING ON MOTION FOR JUDGMENT OF ACQUITTAL AND/OR FOR A NEW TRIAL (DOC. NOS. 383, 386)

          STEFAN R. UNDERHILL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Defendant Douglas Lee (“Fly”) was charged by Indictment with the kidnapping of Charles Teasley (“Man”), resulting in Teasley's death, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1201(a)(1) and 18 U.S.C. § 2 (count one); the firearm-related murder of Teasley in furtherance of kidnapping, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(j)(1) and 18 U.S.C. § 2 (count two); and the firearm-related murder of Teasley in furtherance of Hobbs Act Robbery, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(j)(1) and 18 U.S.C. § 2 (count three). See Indictment, Doc. No. 1. Lee was charged alongside co-defendants Harold Cook (“Oink”), Gerund Mickens (“Breeze”), Terrell Hunter (“Rell”), and Jesus Ashanti (“Black”). Id. All but Ashanti elected to go to trial and Lee's trial was severed from that of his co-defendants.[1] See Order on Mot. to Sever, Doc. No. 178 at 20-22.

         Lee went to trial in October 2018 and was found guilty on count one, but acquitted on counts two and three. See Verdict, Doc. No. 392. He filed an oral Motion for Judgment of Acquittal on October 23, 2016 (doc. no. 383) and a written Motion for Judgment of Acquittal and/or New Trial on October 26, 2018. See Mot. for Acquittal, Doc. No. 386. On July 8, 2019, I ordered the government to show cause why Lee's Motion for Judgment of Acquittal should not be granted on the basis that the evidence failed to show that Lee knew that Teasley would be kidnapped, as opposed to robbed, which was necessary to convict him on count one. Order to Show Cause, Doc. No. 457. The government and Lee have both responded. See Lee Mem. in Supp., Doc. No. 463; Gov't Opp., Doc. No. 474; Lee Reply, Doc. No. 478. For the following reasons, Lee's Motion for Judgment of Acquittal is granted.

         I. Background

         The following general factual evidence was alleged by the government and introduced at trial. Additional facts will be set out below. On the night of January 9, 2009, Teasley received a phone call from Lee and the two set up a drug transaction where Teasley would buy cocaine from Lee. Tr. 10/16/18, Doc. No. 415 at 304, 307-08. At around 9:00 p.m., Teasley took $1, 100 from his girlfriend Kim Brookens' purse and left the home he and Brookens shared in West Hartford. Id. at 275, 305, 310. Teasley left in his mother's car, an Acura TL, and was planning to bring his grandmother to work, get something to eat, and meet Lee for the transaction. Id. at 308-10. Shortly after he left the house, Brookens received a call from Teasley who asked her to bring his small safe, where he kept money and drugs, downstairs. Id. at 311-12. Brookens retrieved the safe and gave it to a man, not Teasley, standing at the front door, whom she described as a tall, thin, dark-skinned black man wearing all black and a black face mask who spoke with a West Indian accent. Id. at 315-20. While doing so, she saw the Acura TL parked on the street in front of her house. Id. at 317. Thereafter, Teasley did not pick up his grandmother from work, nor did he answer Brookens' multiple phone calls. Id. at 321, 326.

         Brookens called Teasley's friends and relatives in search of him, and on January 10, 2009 reported Teasley missing to the West Hartford Police Department. Tr. 10/16/18, Doc. No. 415 at 333-36. Teasley's body was found by his friend Desmond Wright two days later, on January 12, in the back seat of the Acura TL, parked on Colebrook Street in Hartford. Tr. 10/15/18, Doc. No. 414 at 63, 111-12. Teasley's hands were bound behind his back with zip ties and he had been shot multiple times in the head. See Tr. 10/15/18, Doc. No. 414 at 86, 93, 143, 236; see also Gov. Ex. 5K, 5U, 5W, 6B, 6I. In 2011, Ashanti, who was incarcerated for an unrelated crime, met with law enforcement and implicated himself, Cook, Mickens, Hunter, and Lee (among others) in Teasley's murder. Tr. 10/16/18, Doc. No. 415 at 524-25, 538.

         On March 30, 2017, Lee, Cook, Mickens, Hunter, and Ashanti were charged in a three-count indictment with Teasley's kidnapping, robbery, and murder. See Indictment, Doc. No. 1. The government alleged in the indictment that Lee set up a drug deal with Teasley and when Teasley arrived at the specified location, he was ambushed by Cook, Mickens, Hunter, and Ashanti, who kidnapped Teasley by binding his hands and forcing him into the back of his car. Id. Cook, Mickens, Hunter, and Ashanti then assaulted Teasley, forced him to get the safe from Brookens, and murdered Teasley by shooting him in the head at close range. Id. I granted Lee's Motion to Sever because of the likelihood of prejudice that would arise if the government introduced prior alleged kidnappings and robberies in which Lee was not involved.[2] See Order on Mot. to Sever, Doc. No. 178 at 20-22. Further, Lee's degree of culpability in the instant case was “markedly different” from that of his co-defendants because the government alleged only that Lee “set Teasley up by arranging the drug transaction and providing the details to the other defendants.” Id. at 22. The government did not allege that Lee otherwise participated when Teasley was kidnapped, robbed, and murdered. Id. Accordingly, Lee was tried separately from his co-defendants and, as mentioned, was found guilty on count one only. He now moves for a judgment of acquittal.

         II. 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) (“The 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. Best, 219 F.3d at 200; see also United States v. Memoli, 2015 WL 1525864, at *2 (D. Conn. Apr. 2, 2015) (“In order to prevail on a Rule 29 Motion, Defendant must establish that the totality of the evidence is insufficient to convict him-it is irrelevant that one piece of evidence, standing alone, would not have been enough.” (emphasis in original)). The “pieces of evidence must be viewed ‘not in isolation, but in conjunction.'” Memoli, 2015 WL 1525864, at *2 (quoting United States v. Casamento, 887 F.2d 1141, 1156 (2d Cir. 1989)).

         Further, the court 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).

         III. Discussion

         As addressed in my Order to Show Cause, the critical question with respect to count one is whether there was sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Lee had knowledge that Teasley would be kidnapped, not merely robbed. Order to Show Cause, Doc. No. 457 at 4. I conclude that the evidence did not sufficiently show that Lee knew that Teasley would be kidnapped and, therefore, Lee's Motion for Judgment of Acquittal is granted.

         A. Legal Principles

         In Count One, Lee was charged with aiding and abetting Cook, Ashanti, Mickens, and Hunter in kidnapping Teasley, which resulted in Teasley's death. The federal kidnapping statute provides, ...


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