United States District Court, District of Columbia
BERMAN JACKSON United States District Judge.
March 31, 2017, defendants Dwight Knowles and Oral Thompson
were convicted after a jury trial of conspiring to
distribute, and possess with the intent to distribute, five
kilograms or more of cocaine on board an aircraft registered
in the United States or owned by a United States citizen, in
violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 959(b) (2012),
and 963. On May 1, 2017, defendant Thompson filed a motion
for a judgment of acquittal notwithstanding the verdict, or
in the alternative, a new trial, under Federal Rules of
Criminal Procedure 29 and 33. Def. Thompson's Mot. for J.
of Acquittal Notwithstanding Verdict, or in the Alternative,
for New Trial [Dkt. # 235] (“Def.'s Mot.”);
Mem. in Supp. of Def.'s Mot. [Dkt. # 236]
(“Def.'s Mem.”). Thompson argues that the
evidence at trial failed to prove an essential element of the
charge: “that the aircrafts allegedly employed during
the life of the conspiracy were in fact ‘aircraft
registered in the United States or owned by a United States
citizen.'” Def.'s Mem. at 3. Because there was
ample evidence to support the jury's verdict,
Thompson's motion will be denied.
December 12, 2012, a grand jury returned an indictment
charging defendants Oral George Thompson, Dwight Knowles,
Sergio Gonzalez-Bencomo, Dario Davis, and Trevor Ferguson
with conspiring to possess with the intent to distribute, and
to distribute, five kilograms or more of cocaine on board an
aircraft registered in the United States or owned by a United
States citizen, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§
959(b), 960(b)(1)(B), and 963, and 18 U.S.C. § 2.
Indictment [Dkt. # 3]. Defendant Thompson was extradited from
Colombia on March 28, 2014. Arrest Warrant [Dkt. # 39].
conspiracy in this case involved the use of U.S.-registered
aircraft to transport cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela to
Honduras. Thompson and Knowles were on the transportation
side of the transaction, and they dealt with representatives
of the suppliers on the other side of the transaction. At one
point, Knowles was sent to sit with one of the suppliers'
representatives to serve as a human “guarantee”
that the plane would arrive, and in connection with the May
2012 transaction at the center of the trial, he recruited his
nephew, Dario Davis, who held a pilot's license, to join
the conspiracy and fly the plane. The government's
evidence focused on a particular plane, a Beechcraft 1900
with the tail number N157PA. On May 28, 2012, co-conspirators
Dario Davis and Trevor Ferguson flew the N157PA plane from
the Bahamas to Haiti. Davis and Ferguson were supposed to
pick up an additional pilot in Haiti, but the plane was
detained upon landing by Haitian authorities, and Davis and
Ferguson were arrested.
case proceeded to trial against Thompson and Knowles on March
14, 2017. On March 31, 2017, the jury returned guilty
verdicts against both defendants. Verdict Form [Dkt. # 229]
(Knowles); Verdict Form [Dkt. # 231] (Thompson). On May 1,
2017, defendant Thompson filed a motion for a new trial, or
in the alternative, for a judgment of acquittal
notwithstanding the verdict. Def.'s Mot.; Def.'s Mem.
The government opposed the motion on May 19, 2017.
Gov't's Opp. to Def.'s Mot. [Dkt. # 240]
(“Opp.”). Thompson filed a reply on July 7, 2017.
Reply to Gov't's Opp. [Dkt. # 256]
Rule 29 Motion for Judgment of Acquittal
Rule of Criminal Procedure 29(c) requires a court to grant a
defendant's motion for a judgment of acquittal after a
verdict has been rendered for any “offense for which
the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction.”
In reviewing a post-verdict motion for judgment of acquittal
under Rule 29, a court “must view the evidence in the
light most favorable to the verdict.” United States
v. Campbell, 702 F.2d 262, 264 (D.C. Cir. 1983). In
evaluating the sufficiency of the evidence, “[t]he
reviewing court considers only the ‘legal' question
of ‘whether, after viewing the evidence in the light
most favorable to the prosecution, any rational
trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the
crime beyond a reasonable doubt.'” Musacchio v.
United States, 136 S.Ct. 709, 715 (2016) (emphasis in
original), quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S.
307, 319 (1979); see also United States v.
Shmuckler, 792 F.3d 158, 161-62 (D.C. Cir. 2015). The
standard for a Rule 29 motion is “very high, ”
and the evidence to support a conviction does “not need
to be overwhelming.” United States v. Pasha,
797 F.3d 1122, 1135 n.9 (D.C. Cir. 2015).
Rule 29 standard preserves the jury's role “as
weigher of the evidence” and “gives full play to
the responsibility of the trier of fact fairly to resolve
conflicts in the testimony, to weigh the evidence, and to
draw reasonable inferences from basic facts to ultimate
facts.” Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319. So the
“evidence need not exclude every reasonable hypothesis
of innocence or be wholly inconsistent with every conclusion
except that of guilt” to suffice to sustain a guilty
verdict. United States v. Bostick, 791 F.3d 127, 137
(D.C. Cir. 2015), quoting United States v.
Kwong-Wah, 924 F.2d 298, 302 (D.C. Cir. 1991).
Rule 33 Motion for a New Trial
Rule of Criminal Procedure 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). “Trial courts
enjoy broad discretion in ruling on a motion for a new
trial.” United States v. Wheeler, 753 F.3d
200, 208 (D.C. Cir. 2014). While the Rules do “not
define ‘interests of justice, '” the D.C.
Circuit has instructed that “granting a new trial
motion is warranted only in those limited circumstances where
‘a serious miscarriage of justice may have
occurred.'” Id., quoting United States
v. Rogers, 918 F.2d 207, 213 (D.C. Cir. 1990). “In
considering a new trial motion based on the weight of the
evidence the district judge ‘weighs the evidence and
evaluates the witnesses' credibility and decides whether
a serious miscarriage of justice may have
occurred.'” United States v. Dale, 991
F.2d 819, 838 (D.C. Cir. 1993), quoting Rogers, 98
F.2d at 213.
Thompson's Rule 29 motion will be denied because a
rational trier of fact could conclude that there was an
agreement to use a U.S. registered airplane, and that the
airplane at issue was in fact registered in the United
sole argument is that the government failed to introduce
sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that
“the aircrafts allegedly employed during the life of
the conspiracy were in fact ‘aircraft registered in the
United States or owned by a United States
citizen.'” Def.'s Mem. at 3.
first problem with this argument is that defendants in this
case were charged with conspiracy to distribute, or possess
with the intent to distribute, the cocaine on board an
aircraft owned by a United States citizen or registered in
the United States. The critical element of the offense of
conspiracy is ...