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United States v. Chai

United States District Court, S.D. New York

January 22, 2015

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
CHRISTINA CHAI and HI JONG LEE, Defendants.

OPINION & ORDER

PAUL A. CROTTY, District Judge.

On September 29, 2014, after a two-week trial, a jury convicted Defendant Christina Chai of conspiracy to illegally distribute oxycodone; and Defendant Hi Jong Lee of conspiracy to illegally distribute oxycodone, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and structuring transactions to evade currency reporting requirements.

Mr. Lee now moves for a judgment of acquittal, pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure ("Fed. R. Crim. P.") 29(c) as to all three counts of conviction, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support the verdicts. Alternatively, he moves for a new trial, pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 33, on the grounds that certain of the Court's rulings effectively denied him a fair trial.

Ms. Chai moves for a new trial on the sole ground that the jury was exposed to extra-record information during its deliberation. For the reasons below, Mr. Lee's and Ms. Chai's motions are DENIED.

BACKGROUND

Mr. Lee and Ms. Chai were indicted with a third individual, Ji Lee. During the time frame of the conspiracy (2011-2013), Mr. Lee was a pharmacist and the owner of Stanley Pharmacy, Ms. Chai was a pharmacist employed by the pharmacy, and Ji Lee was the pharmacy manager. Prior to trial, Ji Lee pled guilty to conspiracy to illegally distribute oxycodone. At trial, neither Mr. Lee nor Ms. Chai disputed that oxycodone was illegally distributed at Stanley Pharmacy. Their defense was that they were not involved in the alleged illegal activity.

DISCUSSION

I. Motion for Judgment of Acquittal

A. Legal Standard

Under Fed. R. Crim. P. 29, a court must enter a judgment of acquittal if "the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction." Defendants seeking to overturn convictions on this basis bear a "heavy burden" because verdicts "must be affirmed if any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.'" United States v. Cote, 544 F.3d 88, 98 (2d Cir. 2008) ( quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979)). In reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence, the Court "credit[s] every inference that could have been drawn in the government's favor, and defer[s] to the jury's assessment of witness credibility and its assessment of the weight of the evidence." United States v. Chavez, 549 F.3d 119, 125 (2d Cir. 2008) (citations omitted).

The Court reviews "pieces of evidence not in isolation but in conjunction, " United States v. Amato, 15 F.3d 230, 236 (2d Cir. 1994) (citation omitted), and the evidence, taken together, "need not have excluded every possible hypothesis of innocence." United States v. Pitre, 960 F.2d 1112, 1120 (2d Cir. 1992). This is particularly true for conspiracy convictions, "because a conspiracy by its very nature is a secretive operation, and it is a rare case where all aspects of a conspiracy can be laid bare in court with the precision of a surgeon's scalpel.'" Id. (quoting United States v. Provenzano, 615 F.2d 37, 45 (2d Cir. 1980)).

B. Application

1. There was sufficient evidence to support the verdicts against Mr. Lee

a. Count One (Conspiracy to illegally distribute oxycodone) and Count Two (Conspiracy to commit money laundering)

Mr. Lee argues that there was insufficient evidence to support a guilty verdict for Counts One and Two because the Government presented no direct proof of Mr. Lee's guilt, and because the circumstantial evidence was inadequate to support the verdicts.

The evidence showed that, during the time frame of the conspiracy, Mr. Lee was the president and owner of Stanley Pharmacy; he was responsible for banking, payroll, and bookkeeping; and he was physically present at the pharmacy several days each week. (Tr. 912-15). The evidence showed that Mr. Lee spent much of his time in the drugstore's office in the basement, including those days when he was the only pharmacist scheduled to work. (Tr. 305, 587-88). The only other individual who could have been filling prescriptions on those days was his son Ji Lee, who Mr. Lee knew was not a licensed pharmacist. (Tr. 588-89). Moreover, during their search of the basement office, federal agents found bank records for Stanley Pharmacy, as well as a detailed ledger showing the number of prescriptions filled per day and revenue derived from those prescriptions. (Tr. 814-22).

The evidence at trial also showed that Mr. Lee and his wife were the only authorized signers for the bank account for Stanley Pharmacy (the "Pharmacy Account"). (Tr. 781-82). The amount of money in the Pharmacy Account increased substantially during the conspiracy, from approximately $300, 000 to $750, 000. ( See Tr. 811-14). The Government presented evidence from which the jury could determine that Mr. Lee knew of this substantial increase-not only because he and his wife were the authorized signers for the account, but also because Mr. Lee regularly deposited cash into the account. (Tr. 693-94; 713-14). The evidence showed that when Mr. Lee made cash deposits, he often did so in amounts totaling just under $10, 000, the threshold that would require the bank to file a currency transaction report. (Tr. 714).

Considering the evidence "not in isolation but in conjunction, " Amato, 15 F.3d at 236, any rational jury could easily have found beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Lee participated in a conspiracy to illegally distribute oxycodone and to launder the proceeds. Mr. Lee's contention that the Government failed to present direct, as opposed to circumstantial, evidence of his participation is unavailing because a "jury's verdict may be based entirely on circumstantial evidence." United States v. Martinez, 54 F.3d 1040, 1043 (2d Cir. 1995).

2. Count Three (Structuring transactions to evade currency reporting requirements)

Mr. Lee claims that the evidence was insufficient to prove his intent to evade currency reporting requirements. Mr. Lee further argues that the Government failed to prove that he structured transactions either: (a) while violating another law, or (b) in amounts of more than $100, 000 during a single year.

The arguments are rejected. Bank tellers Kadene Gayle and Providence Maia testified that Mr. Lee personally made cash deposits into the Pharmacy Account multiple times per week. (Tr. 693-94; 713-14). Ms. Gayle, in particular, recalled that Mr. Lee's cash deposits would often total just under $10, 000. (Tr. 714). Ms. Gayle also testified that on one occasion, Mr. Lee attempted to make two deposits totaling $11, 000, but when she asked for his identification to prepare a currency transaction report, Mr. Lee "took back" $2, 000 from her. (Tr. 714-16). While Mr. Lee argues that "[t]here could be all sorts of reasons why [he] decided not to make one of the two deposits, " the evidence presented "need not have excluded every possible hypothesis of innocence, " but merely be sufficient for a rational trier of fact to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Lee Mtn., at 9; see Pitre, 960 F.2d at 1120. The evidence here was clearly sufficient. Furthermore, a rational jury could find that Mr. Lee structured transactions while violating another law because the jury was entitled to-and did-find Mr. Lee guilty of conspiracy.[1]

Accordingly, Mr. Lee's motions for judgments of acquittal with respect to Counts One, Two, and Three are DENIED.

II. Motions for a New Trial

A. Legal Standard

The Court may "vacate any judgment and grant a new trial if the interest of justice so requires." Fed. R. Crim. P. 33. Motions for a new trial "are disfavored in this Circuit and the standard for granting such a motion is strict." United States v. Gambino, 59 F.3d 353, 364 (2d Cir. 1995). To prevail, a defendant must demonstrate that "letting a guilty verdict stand would be a manifest injustice." United States v. Aguiar, 737 F.3d 251, 264 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting United States v. Ferguson, 246 F.3d 129, 134 (2d Cir. 2001)). In considering ...


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