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United States v. Chavez

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

December 11, 2019

United States of America,
v.
Manuela Chavez, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          RONALD A. GUZMÁN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         For the reasons stated below, Defendant's motions for judgment of acquittal notwithstanding the verdict [166] and a new trial [167] are denied.

         STATEMENT

         Manuela Chavez was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute heroin and cocaine (Count One) and distribution of heroin (Count Two). After a three-day trial, a jury convicted her of both counts. Chavez moves for judgment of acquittal notwithstanding the verdict and a new trial under Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure (“Rule”) 29 and 33. Chavez did not file replies in support of her motions, so the Court rules without them.

         Motion for Judgment of Acquittal Under Rule 29

         A motion for a judgment of acquittal is appropriate if “the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction.” Fed. R. Crim. Proc. 29(a). A court must “uphold the jury's verdict if, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.” United States v. Miller, 782 F.3d 793, 797 (7th Cir. 2015). “[A] defendant seeking a judgment of acquittal faces a ‘nearly insurmountable hurdle.'” United States v. Garcia, 919 F.3d 489, 496 (7th Cir. 2019) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         Chavez contends that she is entitled to a new trial because the government's evidence at trial was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she was guilty of Counts One and Two. The jury heard the testimony of Willie Slater, a confidential informant, that he had delivered tens of thousands of dollars to Chavez in exchange for drugs on several occasions. Slater testified that these transactions took place at Roma III, the store Chavez owned and operated with her aunt and codefendant, Rosalinda Perez. Slater's testimony was corroborated by a video and audio recording he made at the request of the government, which the jury watched and heard. The video of the relevant transaction on August 28, 2015 showed Slater entering Roma III and, at Perez's direction, walking into the back office where Chavez, also at Perez's direction, was retrieving an item from a box. After wrapping the item in tissue paper and putting it in a shoe box, Chavez told Slater she would give it to him in front at the cash register. Slater then went to the cash register to purchase socks. After Perez rang him up and handed him a plastic bag with the socks inside, Chavez appeared and handed Slater another bag. Slater then left the store. Special Agent Ben Milligan testified that upon Slater's exit from Roma III that day, Milligan and another agent met Slater and took possession of the two bags: one containing socks and another with a kilogram brick of heroin wrapped in tissue paper. The government also presented bank records and documentary evidence from the state of Illinois showing that Chavez and Perez owned the store and were two of only three Roma III employees.

         Viewing this evidence in a light most favorable to the government, a rational jury could have found that Chavez was guilty of Counts One and Two of the superseding indictment.

         Motion for a New Trial Under Rule 33

         Rule 33 allows a new trial “if the interest of justice so requires, ” which has been interpreted to require a new trial where “the evidence preponderates so heavily against the defendant that it would be a manifest injustice to let the guilty verdict stand.” United States v. Conley, 875 F.3d 391, 399 (7th Cir. 2017) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). In deciding a Rule 33 motion, the Court may consider the credibility of the witnesses. Id. “[T]he exercise of power conferred by Rule 33 is reserved for only the most extreme cases.” Id.

         A. Government's Rebuttal During Closing Argument

         Chavez first asserts that statements during the government's rebuttal of the defense's closing argument were inappropriate or misstated the evidence, thus resulting in a miscarriage of justice. The Seventh Circuit analyzes in two steps claims of misconduct relating to prosecutors' statements: “First, [the Court] determine[s] whether the prosecutor's comments were improper standing alone. Second, [the Court] ask[s] whether the remarks in the context of the whole record denied the defendants the right to a fair trial.” United States v. Kelerchian, 937 F.3d 895, 916 (7th Cir. 2019). Factors the Court looks at to determine if the relevant statement deprived a defendant of a fair trial include “1) the nature and seriousness of the misconduct; 2) the extent to which the comments were invited by the defense; 3) the extent to which the prejudice was ameliorated by the court's instruction to the jury; 4) the defense's opportunity to counter any prejudice; and 5) the weight of the evidence supporting the conviction.” Id. at 916-17 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         Chavez initially points to the government's assertion that the defense attorney unfairly parsed statements “like defense lawyers are paid to do.”[1] Chavez characterizes this statement as “highly pejorative, completely inappropriate and designed to bias the jury against [Chavez] and her attorneys.” (Def.'s Mot. New Trial, Dkt. # 166, at 2.) The Court finds that the government's statements were not improper standing alone. Contrary to Chavez's assertion, the statements were not a personal attack but an observation about defense lawyers generally. See United States v. Bloom, 846 F.3d 243, 254 (7th Cir. 2017) (government's statement that defense counsel's cross-examination was repetitious and “practically bordering on a waste of the jury's time[, ]” and its subsequent assertion that defense counsel was putting up a “smoke screen” were not improper because the comments “criticized defense counsel's tactics, not defense counsel personally, ” which is “permissible.”). Even if the statements were improper standing alone, they did not deprive Chavez of a fair trial; they were not outrageous or extreme and were made during closing argument, which the jury was told constituted an opportunity for the parties to argue their interpretation of the facts. The Court denies this basis for relief.

         Chavez next challenges the government's “repeatedly and improperly vouch[ing] for Slater during its rebuttal argument.” (Def.'s Mot. New Trial, Dkt. # 166, at 3.) Chavez contends that in response to her assertion that Slater changed his testimony regarding how many times he had received drugs from Chavez, the government improperly implied that if Slater had altered his testimony between direct examination and cross-examination, the government would have “yanked him off the stand.” According to Chavez, the government “essentially invoked [its] prestige to vouch for the fact that Slater was telling the truth . . . .” (Id.) The trial transcript shows that the government, in response to Chavez's assertion that Slater was not credible because his story changed as to how many drug transactions he had engaged in with Chavez and Perez, stated as follows: “And if [Slater] had gotten on the witness stand and told you, you know what, I got it wrong, . . . the defendant is really the head of the whole operation. Yoink. Plea agreement is gone, he is in prison for the rest of his life. If he gets up and says, it wasn't four to seven ...


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