Monday, June 15, 2015

New trial for criminal defendant who threatened to kill government informant

The Second Circuit does not often reverse criminal convictions outright, but it does so here, ruling that the trial court denied the defendant a new trial when it allowed the jury to hear that the defendant had threatened to kill a government informant,

The case is United States v. Morgan, decided on May 19. Morgan was on trial for drug-related offenses, including possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime. Morgan's former girlfriend, Williams, testified at trial that Morgan sent her letters from prison seeking her assistance in killing the informant. Morgan's lawyer objected, and the trial court agreed this testimony was unfairly prejudicial to Morgan. In the end, the trial court did not give the jury a limiting instruction. The Court thought such an instruction would raise a "red flag" for the jury, stating, "there's no charge in this case in the indictment about attempting murder or a murder. This is about drugs and guns, as they jury knows from the beginning. Beyond that, I don't think I can do much. That might be worse for you than not saying anything."

New trial for Morgan. While threats can be relevant to prove guilty knowledge, "the alleged threats here bore no relation to the offenses for which Morgan was being tried. Moreover, the death threat evidence admitted during Williams's direct examination had substantial capacity ... to lure the jury into declaring guilt on a ground different from proof specific to the offense charged." Moreover, no limiting instruction would have mitigated the prejudicial effect of the death threat evidence. The evidence was simply that powerful.

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