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United States v. Enrique Valencia-Lopez (9th Cir. August 2020)

The Ninth Circuit vacated a defendant’s conviction for transporting marijuana and remanded for a new trial because the district court did not properly assess the reliability of the government’s expert witness, an ICE agent, who testified that the cartel does not employ unwilling couriers. The Court held that this was harmful error because it directly undercut the defendant’s credibility and duress defense.

United States v. Michael Heinrich (3rd Cir. June 2020)

The Third Circuit vacated a defendant’s conviction and remanded the case to the district court for an explicit ruling and reasonings on whether to exclude the defendant’s proffered expert evidence under Rule 403. The Court recognized its authority to conduct a de novo balancing test but held that remand was more appropriate where there was no record regarding the judge’s reasoning, the judge had not issued a formal ruling (instead having a law clerk inform the parties of the judge’s intent), and a trial judge is better positioned to conduct the Rule 403 balancing test.

United States v. Jason Harriman (8th Cir. August 2020)

The Eighth Circuit upheld a defendant’s conviction of murder-for-hire, denying entrapment as an affirmative defense under the de novo standard of review because the defendant did not produce sufficient evidence of inducement. The Court also affirmed the district court’s denial of motions for new counsel and new trial, holding the proper standard of review is for abuse of discretion.

United States v. Mitchell Stein (11th Cir. July 2020)

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the defendant’s sentence, holding that the district court properly estimated the loss amount based on specific, circumstantial evidence of causation, namely that the defendant’s investors relied on the defendant’s fraudulent representations, and that the court did not err in rejecting the defendant’s intervening causation theory. The Court also held that the defendant’s claims on remand before the district court where limited by the scope fo the appellate court’s mandate on remand and did not fall under any of the three exceptions.

United States v. Darius Caldwell (11th Cir. June 2020)

The Court affirmed the defendant’s conviction for armed bank robbery and related firearm charges, holding that the a trial court’s admission of unduly suggestive out-of-court identifications is not reversible error where the identification is otherwise reliable, there was sufficient evidence that the bank was federally insured, and new DNA testimony regarding deviations between the witness’s testimony and the FBI’s guidelines on DNA evidence would not likely change the outcome of the trial.

McKinney v. Arizona (U.S. Supreme Court, February 2020)

The Supreme Court held that allowing a state appellate court to reweigh the aggravating and mitigating factors in a capital case under Clemons v. Mississippi is a permissible remedy after a finding on collateral review that the sentence court failed to consider mitigating factors in violation of Eddings v. Oklahoma.

Holguin-Hernandez v. United States (U.S. Supreme Court, February 2020)

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court held that a defendant has preserved his ability to appeal a sentence as substantively unreasonable as long as the sentence ultimately imposed was longer than the sentence he requested.

United States v. Maurice Jerome McDonald (8th Cir. December 2019)

The Court held that a defendant is eligible to request a sentence reduction under the First Step Act as long as he was convicted of a “covered offense,” regardless of how his sentence was calculated under the Guidelines. What matters is the offense as defined by the statute-of-conviction.

United States v. Odis Lee Jackson (5th Cir. December 2019)

The Fifth Circuit held that the de novo standard of review applies to a district court’s determination regarding a defendant’s eligibility under the First Step Act, but that the abuse-of-discretion standard applies to the district court’s decision whether to actually reduce the defendant’s sentence.

United States v. Cesar Antonio Becerra (9th Cir. September 2019)

The Court reversed the defendant’s conviction, holding that the district court’s failure to orally instruct the jury on the elements of the charged offenses was a structural and plain error even where the district court orally confirmed with each juror that they had read the instructions.

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