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United States v. Perez-Rodriguez

March 18, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Robert M. Dow, Jr.


This matter is before the Court on Defendant's post-trial motion for judgment of acquittal and/or for a new trial [87] and the United States' response in opposition [88]. For the reasons stated below, Defendant's motion is respectfully denied.

I. Background

On January 22, 2009, after a three-day trial, the jury in this case returned a guilty verdict against Defendant Rafael Perez-Rodriguez on all five counts of the superseding indictment: (i) wire fraud, (ii) passport fraud, (iii) aggravated identity theft during and in relation to Defendant's passport fraud, (iv) possession with intent to use unlawfully five identification documents, and (v) aggravated identity theft during and in relation to Defendant's possession of those five identification documents. Defendant now moves for a judgment of acquittal or, in the alternative a new trial. Defendant contends that a judgment of acquittal should be granted because the Government's evidence was insufficient to support the jury's verdict. Alternatively, Defendant seeks a new trial on the basis of several asserted trial errors.

II. Analysis

A. Motion for Judgment of Acquittal

In his motion for judgment of acquittal, Defendant contends that the evidence presented by the United States at trial was insufficient to establish that he committed any or all of the offenses for which he was convicted. In particular, Defendant asserts that "[w]hat was absent from the evidence presented by the Government * * * is any direct evidence in the form of eyewitness testimony of Defendant's actual use" of any of the identity documents discussed during the trial. The United States responds that the evidence adduced at trial was more than adequate to sustain the verdict on every element of every count.

Under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29, "[t]he 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." A Rule 29 motion should be granted only when "after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the United States, the trial court finds that no rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt." Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979); see also United States v. Hagan, 913 F.2d 1278, 1281 (7th Cir. 1990).

The Seventh Circuit has stressed that a defendant seeking a judgment of acquittal on sufficiency of the evidence grounds "bears a heavy burden and faces a nearly insurmountable hurdle." United States v. Seawood, 172 F.3d 986, 988 (7th Cir. 1999). Here, Defendant's argument fails for several reasons. To begin with, Defendant's suggestion that "direct" evidence or "eyewitness testimony" was required to prove the Government's case is incorrect. To the contrary, as one of the cases cited in Defendant's brief states, "a conviction may be based solely on reasonable inferences from circumstantial evidence." United States v. Pinckney, 85 F.3d 4, 7 (2d Cir. 1996). In fact, the Seventh Circuit pattern jury instruction given at trial without objection properly told the jurors that they were at liberty to consider both direct and circumstantial evidence and to weigh both kinds of evidence in equally.*fn1

Viewed in the light most favorable to the United States, there was ample evidence introduced at trial from which a rational juror could have found Defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on each and every charge. To highlight some of that evidence, the Government introduced (i) dozens of items seized during a search of Defendant's home that bore the victim's identifiers and Defendant's name (and, in some instances, his photo); (ii) Defendant's own statements; (iii) the testimony of the victims; (iv) Defendant's financial aid applications submitted to Moraine Valley Community College ("MVCC"); (v) Defendant's employment file from Vans, Inc.; (vi) stipulations setting forth the interstate wire transfers of Defendant's federal student aid funds from the US Department of Education to MVCC; and (vii) the testimony of law enforcement and other government agents, Defendant's brother, and Defendant's former girlfriend. That evidence -- and more -- was more than sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt all of the charged crimes. And, significantly, Defendant does not point to any specific element of any count of the superseding indictment as to which he believes the evidence was insufficient.

As Defendant candidly recognizes, "[j]udges do not set aside jury verdicts very often, and when they do, they must have a good reason for doing so." United States v. Murphy, 406 F.3d 857, 861 (7th Cir. 2005). This case neither presents the rare scenario in which a conviction rests "on mere speculation or conjecture" (Pinckney, 85 F.3d at 7) or the almost equally rare circumstance in which verdict rests on the evidence that is "equally consistent with a theory of innocence as a theory of guilt" and thus cannot "establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." United States v. Harris, 942 F.2d 1125, 1129-30 (7th Cir. 1991). Rather, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Government, there was ample evidence to support the conviction on each and every court. Defendant's motion for judgment of acquittal therefore is denied.

B. Motion for a New Trial

Defendant also contends that four purported trial errors, individually and collectively, justify a new trial. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 33, the Court may grant a motion for a new trial "if the interests of justice so require." A motion under Rule 33 may be granted where the evidence "preponderate[s] heavily against the verdict, such that it would be a miscarriage of justice to let the verdict stand." United States v. Reed, 875 F.2d 107, 113 (7th Cir. 1989). Not surprisingly, the Seventh Circuit has observed that "the exercise of power conferred by Rule 33 is reserved only for the most 'extreme cases.'" United States v. Linwood, 142 F.3d 418, 422 (7th Cir. 1998).

1. Defendant first argues that the Court erred in its pre-trial ruling permitting the Government to introduce at trial evidence regarding Defendant's statements made in 1990 and 1992 Social Security applications, a 1994 passport application, and a 1994 letter to the Child Support Division of the Lake County, Indiana prosecutor's office. The Court addressed Defendant's arguments against the use of those statements in a comprehensive pre-trial memorandum opinion and order [71] and concluded that the statements were admissible as inextricably related to the charged offenses in this case. See United States v. Harris, 536 F.3d 798, 807 (7th Cir. 2008); United States v. James, 464 F.3d 699, 709 (7th Cir. 2006); United States v. Lane, 323 F.3d ...

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