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 actions were driven by credulity and inexperience, rather than greed. The court also faulted the limiting instructions themselves, noting that they might have left jurors open to assuming that the allocutions could be considered on the issue of Becker’s intent.
Finally, the court concluded that the other evidence of Becker’s intent and membership in the conspiracy was “far from overwhelming.” Significantly, the court made clear that its finding that evidence as to these issues was legally sufficient did render an error affecting them harmless. This is an important distinction to which the Circuit has not always adhered.
Becker’s case is all the more remarkable in that arose in the context of a 2255 petition, and not a direct appeal, which means that he successfully overcame several procedural hurdles: the law of the case doctrine, since the court had, on his pre-Crawford direct appeal, rejected the Confrontation Clause claim, and a Teague problem. Fortunately for Becker, his case was not yet final (by a mere ten days) when Crawford was decided.
One note: Becker has already served his entire prison sentence and most of his term of supervised release. Let’s hope that the government does the right thing and drops the case entirely.