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United States v. Bivona

decided: November 1, 1973.


Appeal from a judgment of conviction for sale of cocaine and for conspiracy, entered in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, after trial before Constance Baker Motley, Judge, and a jury.

Kaufman, Chief Judge, Lumbard and Timbers, Circuit Judges.

Author: Kaufman

KAUFMAN, Chief Judge:

Once again, we are called upon to consider a criminal appeal in which the sole issue is whether the prosecutor's courtroom conduct was so inflammatory that it deprived the defendant of a fair trial. See United States v. White, 486 F.2d 204 (2d Cir. 1973). James Bivona's trial before Judge Motley and a jury consumed only three days and resulted in his conviction for sale of cocaine and for conspiracy. 26 U.S.C. ยงยง 4705(a), 7237(b).*fn1 He was sentenced to five years imprisonment on each of two counts, to run concurrently. Although we are compelled anew to reprimand a prosecutor for his remarks, we follow the principle that the bounds of permissible advocacy are to be "drawn within the concrete terrain of specific cases." United States v. White, supra, at 207. Accordingly, we have come to the conclusion that in the context of this trial the comments did not substantially prejudice the appellant.


The factual setting of the case will provide a useful background for examining the prosecutor's comments. Government witnesses established that in early January 1971, George Lawson, an undercover officer with the New York State Joint Task Force, was introduced by an unnamed informant to Jerry Johnson and Judy Niemeyer. Johnson and Niemeyer were named in the indictment along with Bivona, but their trials were severed when they agreed to testify for the government.*fn2 During Lawson's frequent visits to the couple's apartment at 126 East 4th Street in New York City, he often directed the conversation to the use of narcotics. On January 12, 1971, Lawson moved beyond mere discussion by asking Johnson and Niemeyer if they could supply some cocaine. They agreed to arrange a sale of one ounce for $1,100. That evening, Johnson visited Bivona's photography studio at 99 East 4th Street and asked him to supply the cocaine. Bivona was too tired to discuss the sale that night, but when Johnson returned to the studio the following day Bivona agreed to furnish the drugs. At approximately noon on January 14, Johnson contacted Bivona to confirm the sale and to tell him the purchaser would arrive at Niemeyer's apartment between 5 and 6 p.m. Johnson explained that he would be working at the time of the sale and suggested that Bivona and Niemeyer handle the transaction without him.

At 4:15 p.m. Lawson went to Niemeyer's apartment where she introduced Bivona as her supplier. At Bivona's request, Lawson brandished a roll of bills, whereupon Bivona left the apartment and returned five minutes later with a package containing cocaine.*fn3 Lawson departed when the sale was complete, but he continued to discuss drug sales with the couple until February 8, when he arrested Niemeyer, Johnson, and Bivona.


We have noted earlier that Bivona's only claim on appeal is that the prosecutor's conduct deprived him of a fair trial. In support of this contention, Bivona attacks several portions of the prosecutor's summation as highly prejudicial. Our careful reading of the record discloses, however, that only two portions of the summation raise substantial questions.

Bivona claims that the Assistant United States Attorney gave unsworn testimony to fill gaps in the government's case. In an effort to explain why Bivona had not been arrested immediately after the sale -- a question raised by the defense at trial -- the prosecutor made the following remarks, the greater portion of which was without support in the record:

The $1,100 was in their hands; the narcotics had been transferred; serialized dollar bills; they got the case; why not arrest him? For this reason. Narcotics peddlers don't advertise their business; they don't advertise their wares. It is the job of these narcotics agents to find the source of the source of the source. They have got Niemeyer, they move one step up the ladder, they got Jimmy Bivona. They want to find out Jimmy Bivona's source. And that is why Agent Lawson in the apartment said, "How about an eighth of cocaine?" They want more. They are out to negotiate for more. They want to find out Bivona's source, where he gets his drugs and where his source gets the drugs. You don't stop at one level of the ladder when you are dealing in the narcotics traffic. It is that simple. The fact that they didn't arrest him on the scene is just a smokescreen; it is just placing suspicion in your minds and doubt in your minds where it shouldn't be, because common sense tells us that the Government is not going to settle for one ounce if there are more narcotic transactions to be had on the street.

We agree that these comments were ill-advised, but the resulting prejudice was minimal. Moreover, Judge Motley firmly cautioned the jurors, as she did several times throughout the trial, that they were to be guided only by their own recollections of the testimony.

Bivona makes another attack on the prosecutor's summation which is more serious. The contention here is that the Assistant United States Attorney improperly asserted his personal belief in the defendant's guilt by derogating Bivona's testimony while placing the imprimatur of the government on prosecution witnesses:

The Government submits to you, ladies and gentlemen, that for you to accept Bivona's story -- and, mind you, mind you, the defense rests entirely on Bivona's story here -- the Government submits that for you to accept Bivona's story, even for him to ask you to accept it is an insult to your ...

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