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United States v. Matias-Torres

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division

September 18, 2019




         On September 9, 2019, the Court called this case for an expected six-week jury trial of the five codefendants in the above-styled case. Defendant Luis Gabriel Villegas-Rosa did not appear for trial because of an emergency surgery he underwent the prior week, which required hospitalization. Shortly before voir dire was set to begin on the morning of trial, counsel for Luis Gabriel Villegas-Rosa orally moved for a continuance, to which all parties agreed.

         The Court, however, believed continuing such a complex case at this late stage would result in a substantial and unnecessary waste of already expended judicial resources. In the interest of managing the trial fairly, effectively, and efficiently, the Court severed the principal codefendant, Victor Matias-Torres, from the others for trial; granted a continuance as to them; and proceeded with voir dire as scheduled for Matias-Torres only. (Doc. 351 at 19.) The Court then selected a jury but granted a one-week continuance of further proceedings to accommodate Matias-Torres’s request for time to recalibrate his defense. Following voir dire, the Government, which had opposed severance, requested a statement of the Court’s reasons for its severance decision.

         On September 11, 2019, Matias-Torres requested to change his plea, and a change-of-plea hearing was held. Matias Torres sought to plead guilty under a “binding” plea agreement providing for a 30-year sentence. (Doc. 350 at 4); see Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(C). During the hearing, the Government’s lead attorney, David Raskin, stated the following as his reason for the plea offer:

[T]he primary and, in fact, only reason that the Government lowered its offer is [1] the manner in which the Court has handled this case, including [2] the severance ruling, [3] the lack of rationale provided to the parties for that ruling, [4] the absence of rulings on numerous pending motions, [5] a surprise adjournment of the trial date initially, and [6], in fact, the surprise severance motion. . . . So those are the reasons that the Government lowered its offer and wanted to make sure the record was clear on that.
. . . .
[T]he government expected that the Court would be able to handle a complicated case. And the reason we gave our plea deals is we lost that confidence.[1]

(Doc. 352 at 36.) The plea was conditionally accepted. The Court now memorializes its reasons for the severance and continuance order and various other pretrial rulings.


         I. “The Manner in Which the Court Has Handled This Case”

         The Superseding Indictment in this case charges eight defendants with 32 criminal counts. (Doc. 205.) Principally, the defendants are charged with conspiring to participate in the conduct and affairs of an organized criminal enterprise though a pattern of racketeering activity, including murder, assault, robbery, witness tampering, extortion, and drug trafficking. Matias-Torres is charged as the leader of the enterprise.

         On July 23, 2019, the Court held a status conference with counsel to discuss logistics in managing the trial. Discussions included the trial’s expected length (at least six weeks); rearrangement of the courtroom to accommodate the five codefendants and their counsel and staff; procedures for managing pretrial questionnaires for approximately 150 potential jurors; the need for interpreters for some of the defendants; and the likelihood of further continuances following the Government’s upcoming production of unredacted materials. Trial was set to begin on September 3, 2019.

         On July 24, 2019, the Court entered a Pretrial Scheduling Order, which the parties had jointly proposed and submitted to chambers by email. (Doc. 284.) The Order required the Government to produce a witness list by August 9, 2019. (Id. at 1.) It also required the Government to produce unredacted copies of previously disclosed discovery, the identities of informants, and witness’s prior statements (known as “Jencks Material”) by August 20, 2019. (Id. at 1-3.)

         On August 23, 2019, the Court held a pretrial conference. Counsel for Defendant Luis Alfredo Villegas-Rosa requested to delay the start of trial by a couple of days because he needed additional time to review the Government’s production of unredacted materials, which he characterized as “surprising” and “voluminous.” The Court proposed a one-week delayed start date of September 9, 2019, to which all defendants agreed. The Government, however, strenuously objected on the grounds that (1) the production was not surprising; (2) a one-week delay would cause a logistical “nightmare” for rescheduling witnesses; and (3) the delay would cause “witness security issues.” The Court overruled the Government’s objections and delayed the start of trial to September 9, 2019.

         On August 27, 2019, the Court held an additional pretrial conference to discuss remaining logistical issues and pretrial matters, including the parties’ various pending motions in limine and Defendant Jose Morales-Delgado’s motion to sever. Discussions focused on the Government’s intent to introduce evidence of a redacted five-hour “confession” of Matias-Torres and evidence of his affiliation with a notorious gang (the “Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation”). The other codefendants argued that references to Matias-Torres’s “Latin King” gang affiliation would be unfairly prejudicial to them and that the Government’s proposed redactions did not sufficiently shield their identities under Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968). In contrast, counsel for Matias-Torres made clear that his client preferred to have his whole statement played to the jury, and he objected to the redactions for lack of completeness. The Government argued that this evidence was relevant to all defendants because it tended to show the existence of an “enterprise.” The Court deferred ruling on these issues to allow time for negotiation of a potential stipulation and informed counsel that it would take these issues up during an extended break following voir dire.

         On September 9, 2019, the Court called the case for trial. Seventy-seven of the original 150 jurors were waiting in the wings for trial (following an initial round of agreed strikes for cause the previous week (see Doc. 339)). On September 5, 2019, the Court was informed that Luis Gabriel Villegas-Rosa had undergone emergency surgery. Accordingly, the Court instructed its staff to immediately notify the Court if a motion for continuance was filed prior to the September 9, 2019 start date. However, neither defense counsel nor the Government filed a motion for continuance until the morning of trial.

         On the morning trial was set to begin, the Court severed Matias-Torres from the others and proceeded with voir dire as to him only, due to the apparent waste of resources that would flow from continuing the trial and serious fairness concerns with conducting a joint trial that included Matias-Torres. The Court also delayed swearing the jury and opening statements until the following week, September 16, 2019, because counsel for Matias-Torres requested an additional few days to adjust his defense in light of the Court’s rulings. The Court also scheduled additional pretrial conferences to take up motions in limine and jury instructions on September 11 and 12 and prior to trial on the morning of September 16, 2019.

         II. Severance

         “If the joinder of offenses or defendants in an indictment, an information, or a consolidation for trial appears to prejudice a defendant or the government, the court may . . . sever the defendants’ trials.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 14(a). This Court “has the discretion to order severance under Fed. R. Crim P. 14 if the defendant will be prejudiced by the joinder, such as by mutually antagonistic defenses.” United States v. Joiner, 418 F.3d 863, 868 (8th Cir. 2005). “A defendant must show a serious risk that a joint trial would compromise a specific trial right of one of the defendants, or prevent the jury from making a reliable judgment about guilt or innocence.” Id. (quotation marks and citation omitted). Although there is a well-settled preference for joint trials of jointly indicted co-conspirators, one of the main reasons for this preference is to promote efficiency. United States v. Carter, No. 10-00351-02-CR-W-GAF, 2011 WL 6402433, at *4 (W.D. Mo. Dec. 7, 2011), report and recommendation adopted, 2011 WL 6402403 (W.D. Mo. Dec. 21, 2011).

         Although a joint trial of all five codefendants would have been proper in this case, this trial could not proceed as planned the morning of trial due to the unexpected absence of Luis Gabriel Villegas-Rosa. See Crosby v. United States, 506 U.S. 255, 262 (1993) (a defendant must be present at the beginning of trial to proceed in abstentia). Because of this, the Court was faced with making a difficult management decision. The Court opted to sever Matias-Torres for immediate trial because of concerns with judicial economy and fairness to all parties.

         A. Judicial Economy

         On September 9, 2019, the Court had already invested substantial financial and manpower resources in preparing for trial. This Court and the Magistrate Court had held several status conferences and pretrial conferences to govern logistics. The courtroom was rearranged several times, and new equipment was installed to accommodate the five defendants and their lawyers and staff. Six additional United States Marshals were called in from out of town to provide security, and they were present in the courtroom. Three interpreters were also present in the courtroom and ready to proceed. The Court had previously summoned more than 150 jurors to fill out pretrial questionnaires. Sixty jurors were in the courthouse waiting for jury duty when the motion for continuance was filed, and 17 additional jurors were summoned for the afternoon.

         Rather than waste the investment in these efforts, the substantial funding, and the cleared schedules of chambers staff, courthouse staff, and security staff, it was incumbent on the Court to proceed with trial as scheduled if it could be done fairly, effectively, and efficiently. The Government argued that the Court’s efficiency concerns were moot because a second, essentially identical trial would inevitably occur, so the Court might as well enter a continuance. However, as discussed below, there were appreciable differences between the extent of evidence that would have been admissible against Matias-Torres, as opposed to the other defendants. Moreover, the likelihood of a second, identical trial seemed unlikely when considering the reality of ...

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