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United States of America v. Montarico Johnson

September 18, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: J. Phil Gilbert District Judge


This matter comes before the Court on defendant Montarico Johnson's motion for judgment of acquittal or, in the alternative, for a new trial (Doc. 65). On June 26, 2012, a jury returned a verdict finding Johnson guilty of one count of distributing crack cocaine (Count 1) and one count of possessing a firearm as a felon (Count 2). The government has responded to the motion (Doc. 66).

I. Standards

A. Judgment of Acquittal

A court should grant a motion for judgment of acquittal "if the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction" for the offenses charged. Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(a). The Court may grant the motion only where the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the government, is such that a reasonably minded jury must have a reasonable doubt as to the existence of an essential element of the crime charged. In other words, a court should grant the motion only if no rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the offense charged beyond a reasonable doubt. United States v. Peters, 277 F.3d 963, 967 (7th Cir. 2002) (citing Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979)). The Court must remember that "it is the exclusive function of the jury to determine the credibility of witnesses, resolve evidentiary conflicts and draw reasonable inferences." United States v. Reed, 875 F.2d 107, 111 (7th Cir. 1989). However, while the Court defers to the jury's weighing of the evidence and its drawing of reasonable inferences, it must remember that "each link in the chain of inferences must be sufficiently strong to avoid a lapse into speculation." Peters, 277 F.3d at 967 (further citations omitted).

B. New Trial

A court may vacate a judgment and grant a defendant a new trial if the interest of justice so requires. Fed. R. Crim. P. 33(a). The decision to grant a new trial is within the Court's discretion. See United States v. Ervin,540 F.3d 623, 630 (7th Cir. 2008). In deciding whether to grant a new trial, the Court "may weigh evidence, evaluate credibility, and grant the motion if 'the substantial rights of the defendant have been jeopardized.'" United States v. Eberhart, 388 F.3d 1043, 1052 (7th Cir. 2004) (quoting United States v. Kuzniar, 881 F.2d 466, 470 (7th Cir. 1989)), reversed on other grounds, 546 U.S. 12 (2005). When a motion for a new trial is based on the sufficiency of the evidence, the Court should grant a new trial only if the verdict is against the manifest weight of the evidence. United States v. Alanis, 265 F.3d 576, 591 (7th Cir. 2001). As with motions for judgment of acquittal, in making this determination the Court considers the evidence in the light most favorable to the government. Id.

II. Analysis

Johnson asks the Court to grant him relief because (1) the Court gave Government's Proposed Jury Instructions 19 and 20, (2) the Court failed to allow defense counsel to use demonstrative exhibits during closing arguments, (3) the jury returned a guilty verdict based on insufficient evidence of guilt, (4) the Court failed to grant a directed verdict during the trial and (5) the Court found that agent Matthew R. Inlow was an expert and allowed him to testify about the manufacturing and travel of the firearm in issue.

A. Government's Jury Instructions 19 and 20 Government's proposed jury instruction 19 is the Seventh Circuit pattern instruction for felon in possession of a firearm listing as one of the elements, "that the firearm possessed by the defendant had traveled in interstate commerce prior to defendant's possession of it on [the relevant] date." Seventh Circuit Federal Jury Instructions: Criminal 232-3 (1999). Government's proposed jury instruction 20 is the Seventh Circuit pattern instruction defining commerce for the purposes of a felon in possession charge:

A firearm has traveled in interstate commerce if it has traveled between one state and any other state or across a state boundary line. The government need not prove how the firearm traveled in interstate commerce or that the firearm's travel was related to the defendant's possession of it or that the defendant knew the firearm had traveled in interstate commerce.

Seventh Circuit Federal Jury Instructions: Criminal 234 (1999)

Johnson argues that the gun he was charged with possessing had long since left the flow of interstate commerce, that his connection with the gun occurred entirely within the state of Illinois and that his possession of the gun was not in and did not affect interstate commerce. He believes he should therefore be acquitted of or receive a new trial on Count 2. He bases his argument on United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995), in which the Supreme Court recognized limits Congress's power to legislate under the Commerce Clause.

The Government argues the jury instructions given are accurate statements of the law regarding the required nexus with interstate ...

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