Archive | harmless error

Wednesday, June 7th, 2017

“Toxic” Hearsay Warrants New Trial

In an opinion yesterday, the Second Circuit (Jacobs, Pooler, Hall) ordered a retrial of Armani Cummings based on the admission of non-harmless hearsay.

Cummings was charged with killing two people in the course of committing drug crimes.  A government witness testified, in essence: “Someone told me Cummings threatened to kill me.”  The Court explained that this was not an admissible statement by Cummings (the party opponent) but, rather, was double hearsay from a third party “someone” and thus inadmissible.

The error of admitting the statement, the Court further held, was not harmless: “The hearsay was especially toxic because it created a grave risk that the jury would use it as evidence of Cummings’s murderous propensity” and thus convict him for being a “bad man” rather than for committing the two alleged murders.

Of particular note, the Court ordered a retrial even though (1) the jury heard evidence that Cummings …

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Categories: harmless error, hearsay

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Categories: harmless error, hearsay

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Thursday, December 15th, 2016

Good News and Bad News for a Defendant Sentenced under a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) Plea Agreement Who Subsequently Moved for a Sentence Reduction under 18 U.S.C. §3582(c)(2)

In United States v. Jamahl Leonard, No. 15-2232-cr (Dec. 14,  2016) (Circuit Judges: Raggi, Chin, Droney), the Circuit, in a published opinion, vacates a district court’s ruling that the defendant is ineligible for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) and remands for further proceedings. But it also holds that the defendant cannot receive a sentence reduction to the extent he was seeking.

At the initial sentencing, the district court determined that the Guidelines range was 121 to 151 months. But the court sentenced Leonard under a plea agreement pursuant to  Fed.R.Crim.P.11(c)(1)(C) using an agreed-upon range of 97 to 121 months. Under Rule 11(c)(1)(C), the parties agree to a particular sentencing range (Fed.R.Crim.P.11(c)(1)(C)), but if the sentencing court rejects the agreement, it must “give the defendant an opportunity to withdraw the plea.” Fed.R.Crim.P.11(c)(5)(B).  Applying the range of the 11(c)(1)(C) agreement, the district court imposed a sentence of 114 …

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Categories: 3582(c)(2), harmless error

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Sunday, October 14th, 2012

Bad Sport

United States v. Mason, No. 11-544 (2d Cir. September 4, 2012, (Walker, Pooler, Livingston, CJJ)

In this part of the country, the “lawful sporting purposes” provision of U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(b)(2) and Application Note 6 – a downward adjustment that the defendant bears the burden of proving – is rarely invoked. Indeed, this decision is only the Circuit’s second look at it.  Here, the court concludes that the district court misapplied the provision, but that the error was harmless.

Rodney Mason, resident of Vermont, pled guilty to being a felon in possession. He had four firearms and, in connection with his sentencing hearing, introduced some evidence that, at least for three of them, he kept the guns for hunting purposes. The district court nevertheless refused to apply the enhancement, finding that Mason had not shown that he actually used the guns for hunting.  This was error because the focus of …

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Categories: harmless error, lawful sporting purposes, Uncategorized

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Sunday, August 14th, 2011

What’s In A “Same”?

United States v. Feldman, No. 10-2275-CR (2d Cir. August 1, 2011) (McLaughlin, Pooler, Sack, CJJ)

Defendant Feldman sought appellate review of four sentencing enhancements. The government argued that the court should not review them because the district court had indicated that it would impose “the same sentence” even without some of the errors. The circuit rejected this argument, reviewed the claims, found no error, and affirmed.


The facts of the case are particularly unpleasant. Feldman was a psychiatrist who, in the 1990’s, operated mental health facilities in Florida. These facilities proved to be Medicare/Medicaid fraud mills and, just as Feldman was negotiating a plea agreement, he fled to the Philippines.

There, he set up an even more egregious scheme. Through a website called, he fraudulently offered kidney and liver transplants in the Philippines. Desperate patients and their families wired him tens of thousands of dollars and traveled to …

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Saturday, August 14th, 2010

A Bad Call

United States v. Gomez, No. 08-3829-cr (2d Cir. August 4, 2010) (Leval, Pooler, Parker, CJJ)

Here, the improper admission of indirect hearsay resulted in a new trial.


Fred Rivas and a confederate sold 5,000 Ecstacy pills to a confidential informant. They were arrested, and Rivas agreed to cooperate. A New York City detective, Michael Ryan, was permitted to testify about the nature of Rivas’ cooperation; specifically, Ryan testified that he asked Rivas to “call the person who had given him that 5,000 pills,” and that Ryan then dialed Gomez’ number from Rivas’ phone and recorded their conversation. The district court denied Gomez’ hearsay objection to this testimony, and the government ended up using it in summation to directly implicate Gomez as the supplier.

The Circuit’s Decision

The court found that Ryan’s testimony constituted prejudicial hearsay, and rejected with unusually strong language the government’s claim that it admitted the testimony …

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Categories: harmless error, hearsay, Uncategorized

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Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

A Study In Contradictions

United States v. Ramirez, No. 07-2912-cr (Calabresi, Cabranes, Parker, CJJ) (2d Cir. June 29, 2010)

In this case, the circuit found that the district court erred in applying the “impeachment by contradiction” doctrine. But since the error was harmless, it affirmed.


At his drug conspiracy trial, defendant Jose Luis Rodriguez testified that he was not knowingly involved in the drug trafficking of which he was accused. He claimed that he was merely the driver for Jose Adames, the group’s ringleader, and never saw or knew of any cocaine on their trips. Rodriguez testified that he served as Adames’ chauffeur until late 2004, when he received a warning that Adames was involved with drugs, at which time he stopped driving for him.

To rebut this, the government called a police officer who testified that he saw Rodriguez handle cocaine during an unrelated traffic stop after the charged conspiracy had ended. …

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Categories: harmless error, impeachment, rebuttal, Rule 608, Uncategorized

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Monday, May 31st, 2010

Something Barrow-ed

United States v. Oluwanisola, No. 08-4442-cr (2d Cir. May 21, 2010)(Leval, Pooler, Parker, CJJ)

Taking a case to trial after the client has proffered is a difficult thing to do. Most proffer agreements have a clause permitting the government to introduce the defendant’s proffer statements to rebut evidence offered or elicited, or factual assertions made by, the defense. In United States v. Barrow, 400 F.3d 109 (2d Cir. 2005), the court held that such rebuttal clauses apply to all factual assertions, including those made in counsel’s arguments and cross-examination, but are not triggered by arguments that challenge the sufficiency of the evidence. Here, having found that the district court misapplied Barrow at Oluwanisola’s heroin trafficking trial, the court vacated the judgment and remanded the case for a new trial.

The appellate court identified several problems with the district judge’s approach. First, the judge ruled that arguing that specific elements of …

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Categories: harmless error, proffer agreements, right to counsel, Uncategorized

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Saturday, December 6th, 2008

Hire Today, Gone Tomorrow

United States v. Lee, No. 05-1684-cr (2d Cir. December 3, 2008) (Straub, Hall, CJJ, Haight, DJ)

Here, a divided panel found that a Crawford error required a new trial for two defendants convicted in a murder-for-hire conspiracy, although the evidence was legally sufficient.


Defendant Williams was the head of a crack-cocaine ring operating in the Bronx. Defendant Lee was one of his dealers. The target of the conspiracy was Kawaine Ellis, who stabbed Lee in the chest in June of 2001. In November of 2001, Williams rented three cars at Newark Airport. Lee was pulled over while driving one of them, and was carrying a gun, which he told the police he had for “protection.” Around that same time, Williams spoke to another member of his crew, Jason Lawton, and told him to return a gun to Williams because Lee had “just got bit,” meaning that he had been …

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Categories: Crawford, harmless error, sufficiency, Uncategorized

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Saturday, September 6th, 2008

The Three Racketeers

United States v. Riggi, No. 06-1280-cr (2d Cir. September 4, 2008) (Jacobs, Calabresi, Sack, CJJ)

Defendants Vitabile, Abramo and Schifilliti were all long-time members of the Decavalcante crime family. Vitabile was consignliere for thirty-five years, Abramo had been a captain since the late 1980’s and Schifilliti had held that same title since 1991. They were also part of the family’s administration. After a three-week trial, a jury convicted them of racketeering and racketeering conspiracy – comprising ten predicate acts – and five substantive counts. Included in the mix were several murder conspiracies, extortion, loansharking and securities fraud.

At trial, to bolster the testimony of its cooperating witnesses and augment some otherwise underwhelming recordings, the government introduced into evidence the plea allocutions of eight non-testifying co-defendants. On appeal, the circuit agreed that this violated Crawford and that the violation amounted to plain error. It vacated the convictions and remanded for a …

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Categories: Crawford, harmless error, plain error, Uncategorized

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Saturday, October 6th, 2007

Et Tu, Brute – NOT!

United States v. Brutus, Docket No. 06-2710-cr (2d Cir. October 2, 2007) (Jacobs, Walker, Calabresi, CJJ)

Waline Brutus testified at her drug importation trial. During the charge, Judge Glasser instructed the jury, in relevant part, that she had a “deep personal interest in the outcome of the case” that “creates a motive to testify falsely.”

Following in the footsteps of its recent decision in United States v. Gaines, 457 F.3d 238 (2d Cir. 2006), the court held that this instruction was error. This case is significant because there had been a tension between Gaines and United States v. Tolkow, 532 F.2d 853 (2d Cir. 1976), which upheld very similar language. Here, the court very neatly cuts through the confusion and overrules Tolkow, creating a “prophylactic rule” that any “instruction that the defendant’s interest in the outcome of the case creates a motive to testify falsely impermissibly undermines the presumption of …

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Categories: charge, defendant’s credibility, harmless error, presumption of innocence, Uncategorized

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Friday, September 28th, 2007

Crawford’s Eleven

United States v. Becker, Docket No. 06-1274-cr (2d Cir. September 13, 2007) (Calabresi, Parker, Wesley, CJJ)

At Becker’s stock fraud trial, the government introduced into evidence the plea allocutions of eleven (yes, eleven) of his co-defendants, supposedly for the “limited purpose” of establishing that the conspiracy charged in the indictment existed. The Circuit concluded that this was a Confrontation Clause violation under Crawford and, for the first time, found that such a violation was not harmless.

The court rejected the government’s claim that the district court’s limiting instructions cured the error, finding that the sheer number of allocutions and their repetitive nature suggested that the conspiracy was widespread, “making it plausible for the jury to assume that Becker was a participant simply by association with” the other conspirators, despite the instructions. In addition, the content of the allocutions was “far reaching and detailed” and significantly undermined Becker’s defense that his …

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Categories: 2255, Confrontation Clause, Crawford, harmless error, law of the case, plea allocution, Sixth Amendment, Teague, Uncategorized

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