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United States v. Alvarez

United States District Court, N.D. California

July 7, 2016

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
EDUARDO ALVAREZ, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO SEVER DOCKET NO. 722

          EDWARD M. CHEN United States District Judge

         Docket No. 722 Defendants Rogelio Real and Juan Carlos Garcia-Gomez ("Defendants") moved to sever their trial from that of co-defendants Jairo Hernandez and Carlos Vasquez. Docket No. 722 ("Motion"). On June 8, 2016, the Government opposed this Motion ("Opposition"). The Court heard argument on the Motion on June 29, 2016. The Court DENIED the motion for reasons stated on the record. This order memorializes and supplements that ruling.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         On March 6, 2014, a federal grand jury indicted seventeen defendants with various RICO-related crimes. Docket No. 241 ("Superseding Indictment"). Ten defendants pleaded guilty, and the remaining seven defendants have been divided into two trial groups. Dockets Nos. 404-411, 421; Docket No. 445 ("Original Pretrial Order") at 1.

         The first group includes four defendants - Jairo Hernandez, Carlos Vasquez, Juan Carlos Garcia-Gomez, and Rogelio Real. Id. All four defendants are charged with Racketeering Conspiracy (Count I), Conspiracy to Commit Murder in Aid of Racketeering (Count II), Conspiracy to Commit Assault with a Dangerous Weapon in Aid of Racketeering (Count III), and Using and Carrying a Firearm During and in Relation to a Crime of Violence and Possessing a Firearm in Furtherance of a Crime of Violence (Count IV or VI respectively). See Superseding Indictment. Separately, defendants Hernandez and Vasquez are charged with Murder in Aid of Racketeering (Count V) and Use of a Firearm Causing Murder (Count VII) for the murder of Edson Lacayo. See Id. Defendants have not been charged in connection with this murder. However, they are charged with Assault with a Dangerous Weapon in Aid of Racketeering (Count VIII and XI) for stabbing suspected rival gang members with a knife and a screwdriver. See id.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Legal Standard

         "Two or more defendants may be charged in the same indictment or information if they are alleged to have participated in the same act or transaction or in the same series of acts or transactions constituting an offense or offenses." Fed. R. Crim. P. 8(b). Courts prefer joint trials of defendants indicted together because joint trials "promote efficiency and serve the interests of justice by avoiding the scandal and inequity of inconsistent verdicts." Zafiro v. United States, 506 U.S. 534, 537 (1993). However, joinder, even if proper under Rule 8, may prejudice a party. Id. at 538; see also Fed. R. Crim. P. 14 ("Rule 14"). Thus, "if the joinder of offenses or defendants . . . appears to prejudice a defendant or the government, the court may order separate trials of counts, sever the defendants' trials, or provide any other relief that justice requires." Rule 14(a).

         The Supreme Court has held that "a district court should grant severance under Rule 14 only if there is a serious risk that a joint trial would prejudice a specific trial right of one of the defendants, or prevent the jury from making a reliable judgment about guilt or innocence." Zafiro, 506 U.S. at 539. The moving party bears the burden of proving that a joint trial is so manifestly prejudicial that it violates the movant's right to a fair trial. United States v. Mitchell, 502 F.3d 931, 963 (9th Cir. 2007). The Ninth Circuit has outlined several factors that a court may consider in inquiring into the prejudicial effect of a joint trial, including: (1) the jury's ability to "collate and appraise the individual evidence against each defendant"; (2) the judge's diligence in providing limiting instructions to the jury; (3) "whether the nature of the evidence and the legal concepts involved are within the competence of the ordinary juror"; and (4) whether "joint trial would compromise a specific trial right of one of the defendants, or prevent the jury from making a reliable judgment about guilt or innocence." United States v. Fernandez, 388 F.3d 1199, 1241 (9th Cir. 2004). Even if there is risk of prejudice, Rule 14 does not require severance. "[R]ather, it leaves the tailoring of the relief to be granted, if any, to the district court's sound discretion." Zafiro, 506 U.S. at 539.

         B. Motion to Sever

         Defendants move to sever their case from the trial of Hernandez and Vasquez, arguing that a joint trial would be manifestly prejudicial to them, in violation of their right to due process. Mot. at 4. They contend a joint trial would create spillover prejudice because the jury will hear evidence of the Lacayo murder, for which Defendants were not charged, and because Defendants would be paired with co-defendants charged with more serious roles in the conspiracy. Id. at 4-5.

         "The prime consideration in assessing the prejudicial effect of a joint trial is whether the jury can reasonably be expected to compartmentalize the evidence as it relates to separate defendants." United States v. Escalante, 637 F.2d 1197, 1201 (9th Cir. 1980). Multiple charges and defendants may challenge the jury's ability to evaluate the evidence against each defendant. Fernandez, 388 F.3d at 1242. Nonetheless, some prejudice is inherent in any joinder, and "defendants are not entitled to severance merely because they may have a better chance of acquittal in separate trials." Zafiro, 506 U.S. at 540. Moreover, "joint trial is particularly appropriate where the co-defendants are charged with conspiracy, " because the same evidence is admissible against each conspirator. Fernandez, 388 F.3d at 1242.

         Here, Defendants have failed to demonstrate that a joint trial with Hernandez and Vasquez would be manifestly prejudicial. Although Defendants contend it would be prejudicial for the jury to hear evidence of the Lacayo murder, the same evidence would be introduced even if they were tried separately. See Opp. at 5. Specifically, the Government asserts that it will introduce evidence of the Lacayo murder to prove Defendants' RICO conspiracy charges. Id. Defendants also claim that pairing Defendants with Hernandez and Vasquez is highly prejudicial because Hernandez and Vasquez have been charged with more serious roles within the conspiracy. Mot. at 5. However, "the fact that a defendant is to be tried with a more culpable defendant [is] not enough to require severance." Baker, 10 F.3d at 1388.

         Moreover, the nature of the charges and the availability of limiting instructions weigh against severing Defendants' trial. Courts discount the prejudicial effect in cases where the nature of the evidence and the legal concepts involved are not difficult. See Baker, 10 F.3d at 1388. In Fernandez, the Ninth Circuit held that a jury may be expected to evaluate evidence against each defendant in a large RICO and VICAR case. See 388 F.3d at 1242-44. Here, the case similarly deals with RICO and VICAR charges, which an ordinary juror can understand. Additionally, Defendants have not demonstrated why limiting instructions would not address their concerns of prejudicial spillover. The Ninth Circuit has held that a district court's careful limiting instructions "can reduce or eliminate any possibility of prejudice arising from a joint trial." Id. at 1243. Defendants claim that limiting instructions would not be ...


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