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United States v. Morel-Pineda

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

May 28, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHNNY JAVIER MOREL-PINEDA, Defendant.

          ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL AND DENYING GOVERNMENT'S MOTION

          RICARDO S. MARTINEZ CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Johnny Javier Morel-Pineda's Motion for New Trial. Dkt. #68. Following a jury trial, Defendant was convicted of one count of distribution of methamphetamine under 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and § 841(b)(1)(B). Dkts. #15, #58, and #59. Defendant maintains that he was denied a fair trial because a government witness possibly attempted to contact him before trial-a fact learned during trial and fully disclosed to the jury- to “bribe” Defendant. Defendant argues that this misconduct tainted the trial and that the interest of justice requires a new trial to avoid “a serious miscarriage of justice.” Dkt. #68 at 1, 6. This conduct also served as the basis for several unsuccessful defense motions during trial, including a half-time motion to dismiss. Finding that Defendant's trial was fundamentally fair, and for the following reasons, many of which were similarly noted by the Court during trial, the Court denies the Motion.[1]

         II. BACKGROUND

         Defendant's criminal charge arose from a sale of methamphetamine to Mr. Anthony “Tony” Meyers who was working as a confidential source for law enforcement. Mr. Meyers, who was known to Defendant, contacted Defendant and they agreed on a location, amount of methamphetamine, and price for the sale. Law enforcement surveilled the transaction from a distance-though constant visual contact was not maintained-and observed Defendant return to his apartment following the transaction. Mr. Meyers wore a device that recorded the transaction and allowed law enforcement to listen in real time. Consistent with the recording, Mr. Meyers provided law enforcement with the purchased methamphetamine following the transaction.

         More pertinent to this Motion, Defendant notified his counsel after the first day of trial that he had received communications prior to trial which may have been from Mr. Meyers-who was to testify. Further investigation revealed that on May 16, 2019, the Saturday before trial, Defendant received two messages on Facebook Messenger from an account named “Tony Debbie Meyers.” The first, received at 12:42 p.m. was: “Do you want to win your trial? If you do, I will meet you at McDonald's to talk.” Dkt. #63-4 (Trial Exhibit A-37). The second, received sixteen minutes later, indicated: “This is Tony txt me on messenger.” Id. Additionally, Defendant provided evidence of a comment from the “Tony Debbie Meyers” account, at an unspecified time, on Facebook indicating: “Jonny if you want to win your trial meet me at McDonald's and we can talk. It's Tony.” Dkt. #63-5 (Trial Exhibit A-38).

         Defense counsel notified the government, and the government investigated the matter, ultimately sending a communication to defense counsel indicating: “Yes, we were able to determine from investigation that Tony's wife, Debbie (who shares access to the account), sent the message without Tony's prior knowledge.” Dkt. #54-1. Defendant brought the matter to the Court's attention, seeking an evidentiary hearing into the circumstances of the messages. Dkt. #66 at 4:6-8:17. The Court denied the request on the basis that no mechanism existed for such a hearing and because the relevant witnesses were available to Defendant and he could inquire into the circumstances of the messages if he so choose. Id. at 12:4-13:8.

         During cross-examination of Mr. Meyers, Defendant further developed the record regarding the circumstances of the messages. Defendant elicited, essentially, that Mr. Meyers shared the account with his wife, that they had discussed the possibility of sending similar messages, that he was made aware of them shortly after they were sent, that he believed they represented an attempt “to tamper with the integrity of [the] trial, ” and that he did not disclose the messages to the government. Id. at 124:9-130:7, 136:19-138:8.

         As a result of Mr. Meyers' conduct coming to light during his testimony-namely, his involvement in the circumstances surrounding the messages being sent and unrelated violations of his agreements with law enforcement-the government indicated that “the DEA does intend to terminate Mr. Meyers as a source. They also intend to take steps to ensure that he's never hired again by the DEA, given everything [that has] happened here.” Dkt. #67 at 4:8-12.

         Following the close of the government's case in chief, Defendant sought a motion to dismiss or, alternatively, for a continuance. Dkt. #66 at 183:13-187:17. Defendant argued, in essence, that the messages represented an attempt by Mr. Meyers to bribe Defendant with untruthful testimony. Defendant maintained that Mr. Meyers' testimony therefore represented a due process violation, equating it to situations where the government presented testimony it knew was perjured. Further, Defendant argued that without Mr. Meyers' testimony, the government's case would fall apart, and that the veracity of Mr. Meyers' testimony therefore went to the fundamental fairness of the trial.

         The Court denied the defense motions. Dkt. #67 at 5:20-8:4. In so doing, the Court noted that the invitation “to meet was actually never accepted, ” that the messages were open to “various interpretations, ” and that Mr. Meyers was not absolutely critical because the jury “could easily find that [Mr.] Meyers is not credible in the greater majority of his testimony and still find, and reasonably so, that all the other evidence presented by the government, free of any possible taint, is more than sufficient to return a verdict of guilty.” Id. at 5:24-7:12. Further, the Court concluded that no due process violation had occurred because “the government was not involved” in the messages being sent and “was not even aware of it until alerted by the defense.” Id. at 7:13-19.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Motion for New Trial

         Rule 33 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure allows a defendant to move for a new trial after a verdict is rendered and allows a court to “vacate any judgment and grant a new trial if the interest of justice so requires.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 33(a). “A motion for a new trial is addressed to the sound discretion of the trial court.” Evalt v. United States, 382 F.2d 424, 428 (9th Cir. 1967). In exercising its discretion, the trial court is permitted to weigh the evidence and evaluate the credibility of ...


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