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United States v. Watkins

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

July 10, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
DONALD V. WATKINS, SR. and DONALD V. WATKINS, JR., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         A Superseding Indictment charged ten counts against both Defendants Donald V. Watkins, Sr. and Donald V Watkins, Jr.: Count One--Conspiracy to Commit Bank or Wire Fraud; Counts Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, & Eight--Wire Fraud; and Counts Nine & Ten--Bank Fraud. (Doc. 4). Both Defendants chose to proceed pro se. After a lengthy two week trial with over 30 witnesses and more than 200 exhibits, a jury found Defendant Donald V. Watkins, Sr. guilty of all ten counts and Defendant Donald V. Watkins, Jr. guilty of only Counts One and Two and not guilty on Counts Three through Ten. (Docs. 157 & 158). The court denied both Defendants' motions for judgment of acquittal at the close of the Government's case and again at the close of all of the evidence. (Docs. 153, 154, 155, & 156).

         After the jury verdict, both Defendants Watkins, Sr. and Watkins, Jr. filed pro se motions for judgment of acquittal or, in the alternative, for a new trial. (Docs. 163 & 164). The Government filed a consolidated response (doc. 168) and both Defendants filed replies, with Defendant Watkins, Jr. now represented by counsel (docs. 178 & 179). For the following reasons, the court DENIES both motions for judgment of acquittal or, in the alternative, a new trial. (Docs. 163 & 164).

         Standard of Review

         Both Defendants raise two separate legal issues: whether the court should enter a judgment for acquittal on his behalf under Fed. R. Crim. P. 29 and whether the court should grant a new trial Fed. R. Crim. P. 33. Each standard of review will be discussed in turn.

         a. Motion for Judgment of Acquittal

         A motion for judgment of acquittal allows the court to determine if the evidence submitted is insufficient to sustain a conviction. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(a) (“After the government closes its evidence or after the close of all the evidence, the court on the defendant's motion must enter a judgment of acquittal of any offense for which the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction.”). “A district court may overturn the jury's verdict and enter a judgment of acquittal under Rule 29 only ‘if there is insufficient evidence to sustain the verdict.'” United States v. Gilbert, No. 2:17-cr-00419-AKK-TMP, 2018 WL 5253517, at *1 (N.D. Ala. Oct. 22, 2018) (quoting United States v. Williams, 390 F.3d 1319, 1324 (11th Cir. 2004)). And the court must uphold the conviction “unless the jury could not have found the defendant guilty under any reasonable construction of the evidence.” United States v. Frank, 559 F.3d 1221, 1233 (11th Cir. 2010).

         The court must resolve evidentiary disputes in favor of the Government. “In ruling upon a Motion for Judgment of Acquittal, a district court must determine whether the relevant evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to the Government, could be accepted by a jury as adequate and sufficient to support the conclusion of the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” United States v. Varkonyi, 611 F.2d 84, 85 (5th Cir. 1980). The court “must accept all reasonable inferences tending to support the Government's case, ” and must resolve “any conflicts in the evidence” in the Government's favor. United States v. Taylor, 972 F.2d 1247, 1250 (11th Cir. 1992). Further, the court “must accept all reasonable inferences and credibility determinations made by the jury.” United States v. Molina, 443 F.3d 824, 828 (11th Cir. 2006) (quoting United States v. Sellers, 871 F.2d 1019, 1021 (11th Cir. 1989))

         b. Motion for New Trial

         The court may vacate a judgment and grant a new trial “if the interest of justice so requires.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 33. On a motion for new trial based upon the weight of the evidence, the court “may weigh the evidence and consider the credibility of the witnesses.” United States v. Martinez, 763 F.2d 1297, 1312 (11th Cir. 1985). Unlike the motion for judgment of acquittal, the court does not have to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict. See Id. However, “[t]he evidence must preponderate heavily against the verdict, such that it would be a miscarriage of justice to let the verdict stand.” Id. at 1313. Courts have “substantial discretion in determining whether to grant such a motion.” United States v. Estrada-Lopez, 259 F.Supp.2d 1358, 1371 (M.D. Fla. 2017).

         Courts do not favor motions for new trial based upon the weight of the evidence and should grant such motions “sparingly and with caution, doing so only in those really ‘exceptional cases.'” Martinez, 763 F.2d at 1313 (quoting United States v. Lincoln, 630 F.2d 1313, 1319 (8th Cir. 1980)). In the past, “courts have granted new trial motions based on weight of the evidence only where the credibility of the government's witnesses had been impeached and the government's case had been marked by uncertainties and discrepancies.” Id.

         Discussion

         The Defendants' two motions are intertwined. “If the court enters a judgment of acquittal after a guilty verdict, the court must also conditionally determine whether any motion for a new trial should be granted if the judgment of acquittal is later vacated or reversed.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(d)(1). The court will analyze the motions for judgment of acquittal before turning to the motions for a new trial.

         a. Motions for ...


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