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United States v. Thompson

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 1, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
ORAL GEORGE THOMPSON, a.k.a. “Chad, ” Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          AMY BERMAN JACKSON United States District Judge.

         On 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), [1] 960 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.

         BACKGROUND

         On 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].

         The 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.

         The 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] (“Reply”).[2]

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         I. Rule 29 Motion for Judgment of Acquittal

         Federal 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).

         The 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).

         II. Rule 33 Motion for a New Trial

         Federal 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.

         ANALYSIS

         I. 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 States.

         Thompson's 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.

         The 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 ...


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