Tagged: conviction

Anticipating the Supreme Court’s McDonnell Decision on Corruption

Bob-McDonnell-enters-federal-c-500x500_cInterestingly, the federal court has postponed Sheldon Silver’s surrender date pending the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. McDonnell. Read a recent post by Prof. Bennett L. Gershman on the pending appeal titled Corrupt Acts, Political Favors, and the McDonnell Case. Virginia Ex-Governor McDonnell appealed his bribery conviction after jury found him guilty of receiving frequent and multiple gifts from Jonnie Williams, head of a dietary supplement company. The statute requires that a public official “corruptly received anything of value personally in return for being influenced in the performance of any official act.”

McDonnell appealed the conviction citing routine political conduct, being accessible to its constituents, lending a friendly ear, and even arguing that “political favors were political speech protected by the First Amendments.” Prof. Gershman comments on the Justices’ behavior during the arguments pointing out that although Justice Breyer appeared “troubled by the statutory term ‘influence'”, its definition, meaning and application, Justice Kennedy, on the other hand, appeared to “buy McDonnell’s arguments.”

How will the Court’s decision in McDonnell, a decision watched by many across the country, affect the results of Sheldon Silver’s pending appeal?

Related Readings:

The Significance of the Skelos Trial to Government Corruption Cases

WRITTEN BY: Anjelica Cappellino, Esq. & Prof. John Meringolo, Esq.

Right on the heels of the highly publicized conviction of former New York Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver, former New York State Senate Majority Leader, Dean Skelos, and his son, Adam Skelos, were found guilty on federal corruption charges, including bribery, extortion, and conspiracy.

Dean Skelos used his position of power and authority to secure his son, Adam, consulting work and “no show” jobs at a real estate firm, environmental technology company, and a medical malpractice insurer. Adam netted approximately $300,000 from his father promising employers, among other favors, “preferential legislative treatment,” as one of the “three men in the room” that determine the state budget. Despite the easy monetary windfall he received from his father’s connections, Adam was indifferent, and oftentimes downright belligerent, at the suggestion that he should actually work at these jobs. Christopher Curcio, Adam’s supervisor at the medical insurance company, recalled Adam’s response to Curcio’s request that he log in some hours in the office. “He said, ‘Guys like you couldn’t shine my shoes…If you talk to me like that again, I’ll smash your f–kin’ head in.” After a slew of overwhelming evidence, including cooperating witnesses, emails, and wiretaps between the father and son duo, a jury found both men guilty of all eight counts after a total of eight hours of deliberation.

The conviction was a huge victory for the Southern District of New York’s United States Attorney, Preet Bharara, who tweeted, “How many prosecutions will it take before Albany gives the people of New York the honest government they deserve?” Bharara’s question is one that many New Yorkers have asked over the years and optimistically, it looks like it may be answered soon.

While there have been missteps during the prosecution of corrupt political figures in Albany – the Skelos investigation was commenced by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s anticorruption panel, the Moreland Commission, which was created in July 2013 but subsequently disbanded nine months later – the trial and conviction of the Skeloses, and its temporal overlapping with Sheldon Silver’s trial, suggest a strong change in the tides for the United States Attorney’s Office. While drug offenses remain the most frequently prosecuted crimes in the United States federal courts, accounting for 31% of all defendant filings in 2014, there is also a steady decrease in the prosecution of these crimes. Drug offense prosecutions have dropped approximately 14% last year, while immigration offenses, the second most frequently prosecuted crime in federal court, declined by 8%. The Southern District of New York also boasts a shockingly high conviction rate across the board – over 95% of all criminal cases result in a plea of guilty. In light of their conviction rates and the steady decline of the two more frequently prosecuted federal crimes, it is fair to assume that the Southern District not only has the resources to take on Albany corruption, but also plays to win.

Just as immigration and drug offenses have been the crux of the Southern District’s prosecution strategy for decades, it seems as though the Skelos and Silver trials are ushering in a new era where political corruption is at the forefront of concern. Hopefully, the Southern District (and by extension, all federal district courts) can use these convictions as encouragement for a task that is well within its powers – in the words of Bharara, to give the people of New York an honest government.

Related Readings:

The Silver Verdict: Conviction Amidst Juror Struggles in High Profile Deliberation

WRITTEN BY: Anjelica Cappellino, Esq. & Prof. John Meringolo, Esq.

After a three-week highly publicized federal trial in the Southern District of New York, former New York Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver, was convicted on all seven counts against him. Silver received nearly $4 million in corrupt payments from two different law firms and earned over $700,000 in referral fees from real estate firm, Goldberg & Iryami, by inducing real estate developers to retain the firm. Silver also received over $3 million in case referrals sent to Weitz & Luxenberg. Silver secured the asbestos case referrals from a doctor, and in exchange, directed New York State funds to the doctor’s research center. Silver was automatically expelled from his assembly seat after his conviction.

The conviction of Silver signifies many turning points for New York and presents a broad array of subject matter. The end of a powerful politician’s decades-long run. A vacant seat in the assembly. A recently honed focus by the federal government to end rampant political corruption. But another less obvious topic of discussion amidst Silver’s trial is the role the jury played in his conviction. On several occasions during the deliberation process, jurors vocalized their concerns and requested to be relieved. Though Silver was ultimately convicted by a unanimous decision, it is worth noting the issues expressed by these jurors and what exactly they signify.

Shortly after the jury began deliberations, one juror sent a note to Judge Valerie E. Caproni requesting to be dismissed. “I have a different opinion/view so far in this case and it is making me feel very, very uncomfortable,” the juror wrote. “I am so stressed out right now that I can’t even write normally. I don’t feel like I can be myself right now! I need to leave!” The judge denied the juror’s request. Furthermore, the juror had also requested a private meeting with the judge. Judge Caproni denied such a meeting, stating that, “the secrecy of jury deliberations is a cornerstone of our jury system.” Shortly after the request, the judge received another note stating that one of the jurors was “having difficulty distinguishing whether or not exchanging New York State funds for something in return is illegal” – the ultimate trial issue – and requested information on a code of conduct. Another juror, a cab driver, later asked to be excused based on a conflict of interest – his medallion owner allegedly was friends with Silver. The juror was kept on the case. After three days of deliberation, a guilty verdict was rendered.

Jury deliberations are secretive by nature. It is very rare to catch a real-time glimpse of the inner workings of such a system. But in Silver’s case, perhaps one of the most highly publicized trials New York has seen in recent history, the mindsets of some jurors were exposed for all to see – and for all onlookers to analyze. So what does it mean when there is such discord in the juror room – enough to warrant letters to the judge and requests for dismissal?

In the case of the first reluctant juror, defense lawyer, John Meringolo, believed it could perhaps be due to the juror’s unwillingness to convict. “When there’s chaos in the jury room, it’s always good for the defendant. Statistically, the conviction rate is so high in the federal system, when you have someone who’s willing to take a stand, it means that maybe he has a shot.” Meringolo proved correct. After a deliberation was reached, the juror identified herself and stated she was the only juror who doubted Silver’s guilt. “There were people who did not want to listen to anything I had to say — not many, a few,” Arleen Phillips said. “It was tense and I just wanted to get out of there.”

A juror’s pressure to ‘get out’ of deliberations (and oftentimes, jury duty itself) is a problem that has long plagued the justice system. As is one of the many ways in which a juror’s fairness is unable to be gauged, lawyers and judges alike cannot predict which jurors vote due to factually and legally cognizable reasoning and which vote simply to “get out of there.” But in Silver’s case, it was vocalized on three separate occasions that there were issues amongst the jurors that influenced their decisions in perhaps an inappropriate way. As evident in Phillips’ statement, unanimity was not reached due to her actual beliefs and interpretations of the facts and law, but rather, it seems that she was broken down by others.

It is no surprise that a juror majority will always try to influence the lone wolf in an effort to reach a verdict. But what happens if debate and discussion turns into pressure and coercion? At what point is a jury considered no longer able to render a truly unanimous verdict? Silver’s case is a prime example of such an issue, and just as it brings forth many questions as to the propriety of New York’s politicians, it is also an excellent vehicle in which to examine the practical difficulties of juror unanimity.

Related Readings:

Is America Becoming a Nation of Ex-Cons?

POST WRITTEN BY: John Humbach, Professor of Law at Pace Law School.

graphMuch has been written about the extraordinary rates of incarceration as a pressing criminal justice problem. Mass incarceration is, however, only part of the challenge posed by the American criminal justice system. Already, an estimated 25% of U.S. adults have a criminal record and, with a million new felony convictions per year—one every 30 seconds—America’s ex-offender population is growing exponentially (see chart to the right). Our country is well on its way to becoming a nation of ex-cons.

The effects of being a “criminal” do not, moreover, end with release from prison. Newly released inmates are immediately met by a growing assortment of law-prescribed “collateral consequences” that now number in the tens of thousands. In their cumulative impact, these legal disabilities greatly reduce the ability of ex-offenders to find housing, make a living, get an education, obtain bank loans, support their children or, generally, to enjoy the usual rights and amenities of citizenship that are essential for a reasonable quality of life.  As a result, our nation’s criminal-justice policy is literally re-making America into a legally divided multi-stratum society with an entrenched system of law-sanctioned discrimination against a large and growing underclass with a legally-prescribed inferior civic status.

Already, the ex-offender class is the nation’s largest legally discriminated-against minority group, and it is growing. The adverse social implications of this trend remain unclear and the critical demographic tipping point is still uncertain. But whatever the details, this is surely not good path for the nation to be on.

Graph Source: 

Related Readings: 

  • John Humbach, Is America Becoming a Nation of Ex-Cons?, 12 Ohio St. J. Crim. L. 605 (2015) (SSRN) (Pace Digital Commons).