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United States v. Lopez

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

July 16, 2015

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
ALEXSI LOPEZ, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

PAUL W. GRIMM, District Judge.

Defendant seeks a judgment of acquittal, or in the alternative, a new trial, pursuant to Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure 29(c) and 33, respectively, following convictions under the Hobbs Act. With respect to the Rule 29(c) motion, Defendant argues that there was contradictory evidence as to whether a robbery was consummated and insufficient evidence that a robbery took place. With respect to the Rule 33 motion, Defendant argues, inter alia, prejudicial error resulted from the Government including arguments during closing that were not supported by the evidence, the failure to notify Defendant in advance of a stain on a piece of physical evidence, and evidence calling into question certain key pieces of Government evidence. The Government has responded, arguing that there was sufficient evidence of a consummated robbery, that its closing argument was supported by evidence and was insufficiently prejudicial to require a new trial, that Defendant had adequate opportunity to examine the stained evidence prior to trial, and that the evidentiary issues raised by Defendant rely on an incorrect characterization of the evidence at trial. I agree with the Government, and deny the motions.

I. BACKGROUND

On September 4, 2014, Defendant Alexsi Lopez was convicted of one count of conspiracy to interfere with interstate commerce by robbery in violation of the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951(a), and one count of interference with interstate commerce by robbery in violation of the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951(a), following an eight-day jury trial. Jury Verdict, ECF No. 110; Third Superseding Indictment, ECF No. 36.

At trial, a cooperating witness identified Lopez as a "paisa, " or friend, of the MS-13 gang, and testified that Lopez associated closely with co-defendant Ramon Miguel Cerros-Cruz, who was a "jumped-in" (i.e. full-fledged) member of MS-13 and who had entered a guilty plea prior to trial. The witness stated that, in 2006, he observed Lopez carrying a large knife with brass knuckles that he kept in a black sheath. Additionally, the witness testified that, while he was incarcerated at Prince George's County Detention Center in 2007, he overheard Lopez tell another inmate that Lopez had robbed a brothel and stabbed a man along with Cerros-Cruz. Records presented by the Government at trial showed that the witness and Lopez were incarcerated in the same housing unit at Prince George's County Detention Center from August 11, 2007 to October 2, 2007.

During the trial, the Government also presented extensive evidence that, on February 28, 2007, two Hispanic males entered an apartment operating as a brothel in Hyattsville, Maryland, brandishing knives and demanding money from the doorman and a prostitute who was working there. The two males tied up the doorman using cords cut from electric fans, and one of the males proceeded to rape the prostitute on a mattress in the bedroom while the other searched the apartment for money. The evidence showed that the rapist carried a knife in a black sheath and that he placed the sheath on a table near the mattress. During the robbery, another man (apparently, a customer) entered the apartment and was stabbed to death by one or both of the robbers using their knives, after which they stole the prostitute's cell phone and the stabbing victim's wallet and watch before fleeing the apartment.

Evidence collected from the crime scene included the cut fan cords, from which DNA was recovered that was identified as belonging to Cerros-Cruz, and the black knife sheath, from which DNA was recovered that matched Lopez.

Following his conviction, Lopez timely filed a Motion for New Trial and for Judgement of Acquittal (Def's Mot.), ECF No. 115, on May 7, 2015. The Government filed its Opposition to Defendant's Motion for New Trial ("Gov't Opp'n"), ECF No. 118, on June 8, 2015 and the time for a reply since has passed without a submission from Lopez's counsel, see Loc. R. 105.2(a), 207. The motion now is ripe and is before me. Having reviewed the filings, I find that a hearing is not necessary. Loc. R. 105.6, 207.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

a. Motion for Judgment of Acquittal

Fed. R. Crim. P. 29 permits a defendant to move for judgment of acquittal after the close of all evidence, or within 14 days after a guilty verdict regardless of whether the same motion was made prior to submission to the jury. Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(a) and (c). Following a motion, the court "must enter a judgment of acquittal of any offense for which the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction." Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(a). In its review, the court must "[v]iew[] the evidence in the light most favorable to the Government, '" United States v. Hickman, 626 F.3d 756, 763 (4th Cir. 2010) (quoting United States v. Bynum, 604 F.3d 161, 166 (4th Cir. 2010)), and uphold a conviction if it is supported by "evidence that a reasonable finder of fact could accept as adequate and sufficient to support a conclusion of a defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.'" United States v. Young, 609 F.3d 348, 355 (4th Cir. 2010) (quoting United States v. Burgos, 94 F.3d 849, 862 (4th Cir. 1996) (en banc)).

b. Motion for New Trial

Pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 33, a court may grant a new trial on motion by a defendant "if the interest of justice so requires." Fed. R. Crim. P. 33(a). Unless grounded on newly discovered evidence, a motion for a new trial "must be filed within 14 days after the verdict or finding of guilty." Fed. R. Crim. P. 33(b)(2). The decision to order a new trial is within the sound discretion of the trial court, see United States v. Smith, 451 F.3d 209, 216-17 (4th Cir. 2006), but "a trial court should exercise its discretion to award a new trial sparingly, ' and a jury verdict is not to be overturned except in the rare circumstance when the evidence weighs ...


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