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United States v. Meraz-Fugon

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

August 22, 2016

United States,
Roger Hedilberto Meraz-Fugon, Defendant.


          Liam O'Grady United Suites District Judge.

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Roger Hedilberto Meraz-Fugon's Motion for a New Trial. Dkt. No. 71. For the reasons outlined below, the Court finds good cause to deny the Motion.

         I. Background

         On January 28, 2016, the grand jury indicted Meraz-Fugon on one count of importation of a controlled substance in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 952(a) and 960(b)(3). Dkt. No. 10. Meraz-Fugon decided to proceed to trial and on April 26, 2016, that trial began. At trial, the prosecution presented evidence that on December 30, 2015, Meraz-Fugon arrived at Dulles International Airport on a flight from Honduras with approximately one kilogram of cocaine in his luggage, concealed within the walls of jars containing a white cream sauce. After deplaning, Meraz-Fugon was questioned at primary inspection. A United States Customs and Border Protection ("CBP") officer sent Meraz-Fugon to secondary inspection because he was suspicious of Meraz-Fugon's behavior and his answers during questioning. At secondary inspection, Meraz-Fugon's luggage was searched and the cocaine was discovered. The Defendant denied knowing about the cocaine.

         At trial, defense counsel presented the testimony of an operator of a courier company who explained how and why Meraz-Fugon was asked, as a favor, to carry the bag containing the cocaine. Defense counsel also presented the testimony of Dr. [Catherine Snably, a psychologist, who attested that she had determined that Meraz-Fugon was intellectually disabled after administering a series of standard psychological tests on him. Based on this evidence, defense counsel argued to the jury that because of his disability and the circumstances around the crime Meraz-Fugon did not form the mens rea required to convict him. Defense counsel requested that the Court give a "theory of the case" instruction to the jury outlining this argument. The Court declined this request.

         During deliberations, the jury asked several questions regarding the Defendant's competence and mental capacity. Each time a question was asked, the Court conferenced with the parties and drafted a response to be given to the jury. Each time the Court gave the parties an opportunity to object to the Court's response. The jury also sent two notes to the Court stating that they were deadlocked. In response to the second note indicating that the jury was deadlocked, the Court consulted with the parties and gave the jury an Allen charge. Defense counsel objected to the content of the charge. Forty minutes after the Court gave the Allen charge, the jury convicted Meraz-Fugon. Dkt. No. 61.

         The Court gave defense counsel leave to file post-trial motions after the trial transcripts had been docketed. The trial transcripts were docketed on May 20, 2016, and on June 9, 2016, defense counsel filed the pending Motion for a New Trial. The Government filed an opposition to this Motion and defense counsel filed a reply. A short hearing on this Motion was held on August 9, 2016.

         II. Legal Standard: Motion for a New Trial

         Pursuant to Rule 33 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, a "court may vacate any judgment and grant a new trial if the interest of justice so requires." Fed. R. Crim. P. 33. The district court has discretion to grant a new trial, however, the Fourth Circuit has directed that this discretion should be used sparingly. United States v. Arrington, 757 F.2d 1484, 1486 (4th Cir. 1985). This discretion should be used only "where it is demonstrated that the fundamental fairness or integrity of the trial result is substantially in doubt." United States v. Jennings, 438 F.Supp.2d 637, 642 (E.D. Va. 2006).

         In addition, "[p]ursuant to the cumulative error doctrine, '[t]he cumulative effect of two or more individually harmless errors has the potential to prejudice a defendant to the same extent as a single reversible error.'" United States v. Basham, 561 F.3d 302, 330 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting United States v. Rivera, 900 F.2d 1462, 1469 (10th Cir. 1990)). However, to satisfy this requirement, the cumulative effect "of such errors must 'so fatally infect the trial that they violated the trial's fundamental fairness.'" Id. (quoting United States v. Bell, 367 F.3d 452, 471 (5th Cir. 2004)).

         The Defendant has requested a new trial on three different grounds: (1) the Court should have given the jury the Defendant's requested "theory of the case" instruction; (2) the content of the Allen charge was not fairly balanced; and (3) the Court's responses to the jury's questions were confusing and introduced new legal theories. The Court will address each argument in turn.

         III. Analysis

         A. The Theory of the Case Instruction

         The Defendant first argues that the Court's failure to give his requested theory of the case instruction to the jury was an error that requires a new trial. The Fourth Circuit has opined that "[a]s long as the instructions have an evidentiary foundation and are accurate statements of the law, the district court should include instructions 'to instruct the jury in the defendant's theory of defense.'" United States v. Dornhofer, 859 F.2d 1195, 1199 (4th Cir. 1988) (quoting United States v. Mitchell, 495 F.2d 285, 287-288 (4th Cir. 1974)). A district court's decision not to give a jury instruction the criminal defendant requested may be grounds for granting a new trial if the following three factors are satisfied: (1) the instruction was legally correct, (2) the instruction "was not substantially covered by the charge that the district court actually gave to the jury, " and (3) the instruction "involved some point so important that the failure to give the instruction seriously impaired the defendant's defense." United States v. Lewis, 53 F.3d 29, 32 (4th Cir. 1995). However, even if these three factors are satisfied, the court's decision not to give the defendant's requested instruction is not an abuse of discretion "unless the defendant can show that the record as a whole demonstrates prejudice." United States v. Bartko, 728 F.3d 327, 343 (4th Cir. 2013). The Fourth Circuit does "not view a single instruction in isolation; rather [the Fourth Circuit] consider[s] whether taken as a whole and in the context of the entire charge, the instructions accurately and fairly state the controlling law." United States v. Rahman, 83 F.3d 89, 92 (4th Cir. 1996).

The Defendant's requested theory of the case instruction read as follows:
As I have instructed you, the government must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant knew that the materials he possessed contained illegal narcotics. If the defendant lacked this knowledge you must find him not guilty, even if the government proves that the only reason the defendant lacked such knowledge was because he was careless, negligent or even foolish in failing to obtain it.
In determining whether the defendant acted knowingly-that is, whether the government has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he knew that the materials he possessed contained illegal narcotics-you may consider the defendant's limited intellectual function. While you may consider inferences that the defendant might have drawn from the facts known to him, you may also consider whether the defendant would make inferences in the same way as, or to the same degree as, a non-intellectual-disable person. If you find that it's reasonably possible that the defendant did not know that the materials he possessed contained illegal narcotics, he must be acquitted.
It is entirely up to you to determine what inferences the defendant is likely to have drawn from the facts known to him.

         Because this instruction was substantially covered by the Court's other instructions the Defendant was not entitled to have this instruction read to the jury.

         The first paragraph of the Defendant's theory of the case instruction merely restates the government's burden on the mens rea elements-which was already set forth in other instructions given to the jury. The second paragraph references specific evidence that the jury should consider when determining whether the Defendant had the requisite mens rea for conviction. This paragraph is also covered by the other instructions telling the jury to consider all of the evidence before it when determining whether the government has met its burden. Thus, from a purely analytical approach, the Court's decision not to give the instruction is not grounds for a new trial because it was encompassed in the Court's other directions.

         In addition, this case stands apart from the cases the Defendant cites in support of his position. The defense's "theory of the case" was that the government could not prove all of the elements of the crime because of the Defendant's low intellectual functioning, as established through the testimony of a psychologist. The Court instructed the jury on all of the elements of the crime and the government's burden-these instructions covered the entirety of the defense's theory of the case. Unlike the cases cited by the Defendant, the Defendant did not present an affirmative defense or a defense based on a legal rule that the jury would not have known without specific instruction. Thus, the cases the defense cites are generally not applicable here. See United States v. Ricks, 573 F.3d 198, 201 (4th Cir. 2009) (district court should have given affirmative justification defense); United States v. Lewis, 53 F.3d 29, 34 (4th Cir. 1995) (district court gave general instruction in conspiracy but failed to instruct the jury clearly that it may not convict Lewis for conspiring with a government agent; this was error because jury had no way to know this legal rule without specific instruction); United States v. Hicks, 748 F.2d 854, 857 (4th Cir. 1984) (district court erred in refusing to give an alibi instruction); United States v. Head, 641 F.2d 174, 180 (4th Cir. 1981) (district court erred in failing to give reliance on accountant instruction). The defense also has not made a clear argument that the failure to give the theory of the case instruction resulted in prejudice-that is, that the outcome of the case would have been different when all of the instructions given to the jury are taken into consideration.

         Because the Defendant's theory of the case instruction was covered by the Court's other instructions and the defendant suffered no clear prejudice, the Court concludes that the decision not to give the requested instruction is not sufficient grounds for granting a new trial.

         B. The Allen Charge

         The Defendant next argues that the content of the Allen charge given to the jury at trial is reversible per se. An Allen charge, named after Allen v. United States, 164 U.S. 492, 17 S.Ct. 154, 41 L.Ed. 528 (1896), "is given by a trial court when a jury has reached an impasse in its deliberations and is unable to reach a consensus." United States v. Cropp, 127 F.3d 354, 359 (4th Cir. 1997). The decision to give an Allen charge and the content of the charge is within the sound discretion of the district court. Id.

         In United States v. Burgos,55 F.3d 933, 936 (4th Cir. 1995), the Fourth Circuit summarized the Fourth Circuit's Allen charge case law. The Fourth Circuit noted that "[t]raditionally, the standard Allen charge informed the jury (1) that a new trial would be expensive for both sides; (2) that there is no reason to believe that another jury would do a better job; (3) that it is important that a unanimous verdict be reached; and (4) that jurors in the minority should consider whether the majority's position is correct." Id. The Burgos court went on to explain that the Fourth Circuit had "move[d] toward a more balanced Allen charge." Id. at 937. Under this more balanced approach, the Fourth Circuit "strongly recommend[s] that 'the majority and minority on a deadlocked jury be instructed to give equal consideration to each other's views.'" Id. (quoting United States v. West,877F.2d281, 291 (4th Cir. 1989)). While this balanced approach is strongly recommended, Burgos does not require a trial court to include specific language in an Al ...

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