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United States v. Phillips

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

September 16, 2014



MICHAEL J. REAGAN, District Judge.

Defendant Cherron Marie Phillips, also known as River Tali Bey, was charged with 12 counts of retaliating against a federal judge or federal law enforcement officer by false claim, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1521 and 2 (Doc. 1). Following a jury trial, Phillips was convicted of 10 of 12 charges. Defendant Phillips is now before the Court, by and through appointed counsel, seeking a judgment of acquittal (Doc. 187) and a new trial (Doc. 188).[1] The Government has filed a combined response in opposition (Doc. 193).

Relevant Procedural History

The indictment lodged against Defendant Cherron Phillips (Doc. 1) alleged that in March and April of 2011, Phillips, with some assistance from others, knowingly filed or attempted to file, and/or aided and abetted the filing of false liens and encumbrances against the real and personal property of 12 officers and employees of the United States-federal judges, prosecutors and law enforcement agents. The liens were allegedly filed with the Cook County Recorder of Deeds in retaliation for the federal investigation and prosecution of Defendant's brother, Devon Phillips. Each lien claimed that the named official owed Devon Phillips $100 billion.

Phillips initially declined appointed counsel and proceeded pro se ( see Doc. 23). On July 16, 2013, standby counsel was appointed in advance of the July 29, 2013 trial setting (Docs. 42, 43). On July 28, 2013, attorney Lauren Weil Solomon, entered her appearance (Doc. 60). On the morning of trial, July 29, 2013, just prior to the selection of the jury, Judge Shadur delayed the trial and rejected Defendant's decision to represent herself ( see Doc. 62). When Defendant failed to secure counsel by a prescribed deadline, attorney Solomon was appointed as counsel of record to represent Defendant at trial.

The case was reassigned from Judge Shadur to Judge Mihm (Doc. 68). Defendant continued to object to being represented by counsel and attorney Solomon was re-designated as standby counsel; trial was reset to December 16, 2013 (Doc. 86). The Court subsequently determined that Phillips could not appropriately represent herself and attorney Solomon was again designated as counsel of record (Docs. 104, 115, 116). Trial was reset to June 16, 2014 (Doc. 106).

Defendant was ordered to undergo a competency and insanity evaluation (Docs. 92, 108). Psychologist Dr. Diana S. Goldstein found Phillips competent to stand trial, in terms of her cognitive capabilities and emotional status; Defendant's claimed inability to understand the reason she was in trouble was deemed due to willful rejection of American laws, not irrational or illogical thinking associated with severe mental illness or cognitive impairment (Doc. 108, p. 27).[2] No major mental illness was found, but based on demonstrated traits Dr. Goldstein offered a "provisional" diagnosis of Schizotypal Personality Disorder[3] (Doc. 108, p. 25).

On May 19, 2014, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit designated the undersigned district judge in the Southern District of Illinois to take over the case (Doc. 117). During a May 19, 2014, telephone status conference, the Court observed that the Government had filed a notice of Rule 404 evidence (Doc. 40), which Defendant had never challenged; consequently, a June 2, 2014, deadline was set for motions in limine and Defendant's response to the Government's Rule 404 evidence (Doc. 120). A final pretrial conference and jury instruction conference was held on May 21, 2014, and the June 16, 2014, trial setting was reconfirmed (Doc. 125).

The Government's motions in limine (Docs. 127, 136) were granted, precluding Defendant from arguing ignorance of the law, and barring Dr. Goldstein from testifying (Doc. 144). The Court observed that ignorance of the law is no defense ( see United States v. Costello, 666 F.3d 1040, 1048 (7th Cir. 2012)), and Phillips could be found guilty if she merely had reason to know-if a reasonable person with the same information would have known the liens were false ( see United States v. Williams, 746 F.3d 987, 994 (10th Cir. 2014)). Relative to using Dr. Goldstein as an expert, the Court concluded: (1) Defendant had not provided written notice of expert evidence of a mental condition, as required by Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 12.2(b); (2) other than when, because of mental disease or defect, a defendant is unable to appreciate the nature and wrongfulness of her acts, mental disease or defect is not a defense ( see 18 U.S.C. § 17(a)); and (3) the introduction of such evidence was not relevant and would confuse the jury.

Defendant's motion in limine aimed at the Government's Rule 404 evidence (Doc. 129) was denied (Doc. 145). In pertinent part, the Court ruled the following would be permitted to be introduced at trial:

1. Evidence that, during the federal prosecution of her brother in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Defendant Cherron Phillips was repeatedly disruptive in the courtroom, filed numerous documents in the case, including a "Summons to Appear, " and ultimately became the subject of an Executive Committee Order; and
2. Evidence that in March 2011, Defendant - using the names "River Tali" and "Cherron Phillips El" - caused a package to be delivered to the Chief United States District Judge for the Northern District of Illinois that included (among other things) (a) a "Common Law Bill of Indictment" calling for the arrest of the Chief Judge; (b) an "Administrative Notice and Demand" authored by the defendant seeking a "remedy for the law I am currently accused of violating"; and (c) a "Commercial Affidavit" setting forth the necessary characteristics of a valid commercial lien.

Following the Court's rulings on the parties' motions in limine, Defendant filed a Rule 12.2 notice of expert evidence of a mental condition (Doc. 147), and a belated response to the Government's motion in limine regarding Dr. Goldstein (Doc. 148). Defendant contended that Dr. Goldstein's testimony only became necessary when the Court denied Defendant's motion to limit the Government's Rule 404(b) evidence. Defense counsel further asserted that she was not converted from standby counsel until April 4, 2014; Phillips had not been communicating with counsel; and she was not aware of the Government's notice regarding 404(b) evidence until the May 21, 2014, final pretrial conference. The Court reconsidered the issue, but found the notice untimely, and otherwise stood by its prior rulings (Doc. 150).

Trial commenced on June 16, 2014, as scheduled. At the conclusion of the Government's case, Defendant moved for judgment of acquittal pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29(a), but the motion was denied (Docs. 165, 166). Defendant did not present any witnesses and a renewed motion for judgment of acquittal was denied (Doc. 165). The jury returned a verdict of guilty on 10 of 12 counts (Docs. 167-178).

On July 2, 2014, Defendant timely filed her motions for judgment of acquittal (Doc. 187) and motion for new trial (Doc. 188), to which the Government filed a response in opposition (Doc. 193).


Applicable Standards of Review

Defendant Phillips moves for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 33(a), based on the Court's denial of her motion in limine to preclude evidence under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b), and the exclusion of her proffered expert witness, psychologist Dr. Diana S. Goldstein (Doc. 188). Rule 33 provides that, "[u]pon the defendant's motion, the court may vacate any judgment and grant a new trial if the interest of justice so requires." FED.R.CRIM.P. 33(a); see also United States v. Berg, 714 F.3d 490, 500-01 (7th Cir. 2013). When a defendant seeks a new trial because of an alleged trial error, the Court will grant a new trial if there is a reasonable possibility that the error had a prejudicial effect upon the jury's verdict. See United States v. Van Eyl, 468 F.3d 428, 436 (7th Cir. 2006). Such motions are granted "sparingly... only in those really exceptional cases." United States v. Reed, 986 F.2d 191, 192 (7th Cir. 1993).

Phillips also moves for a judgment of acquittal and new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29(c), challenging the sufficiency of the evidence supporting her conviction (Doc. 187). Phillips argues that, had the Court not precluded her proffered expert witness, psychologist Dr. Diana S. Goldstein, there would have been evidence of her mental state that would have been a defense to the charges, depriving the Government of sufficient evidence to convict. "A defendant who makes an insufficient evidence claim faces a nearly insurmountable hurdle.'" United States v. Tucker, 737 F.3d 1090, 1092 (7th Cir. 2013) (citing United States v. Morris, 576 F.3d 661, 666 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting United States v. Pulido, 69 F.3d 192, 205 (7th Cir. 1995))). When considering a motion for judgment of acquittal, a court must view all facts in the light most favorable to the Government and determine whether any rational trier of fact could have found that the Government proved the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. United States v. Torres-Chavez, 744 F.3d 988, 993 (7th Cir. 2014).

Because Phillips' two motions are intertwined, they will be analyzed simultaneously to determine whether there was error impacting the sufficiency of the evidence, and any prejudicial effect on the jury's verdict or Phillips' substantive rights. Because the Court finds no errors in its prior rulings warranting a new trial or entry of judgment of acquittal, the Court adopts its prior analysis and ...

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