United States v. Alfred Velazquez (9th Cir. July 2021)

The Federal Docket

July 14, 2021

Prosecutorial Misconduct – Prosecutor’s comparison of the reasonable doubt standard to a mundane, causal judgment was prejudicial error requiring reversal.

Following a jury trial, Alfred Velazquez was convicted of importing drugs into the United States in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 960. Velazquez maintained his innocence throughout the trial and testified that he did not know that the car he was driving contained drugs. During closing argument, the prosecutor compared the reasonable doubt standard to the confidence a person might need to have in eating a meal without fear of sickness or traveling to court without worrying about a car accident.

The Ninth Circuit vacated the conviction and remanded the case for a new trial. The prosecutor’s comments were misconduct that mischaracterized and trivialized the reasonable doubt standard and caused Velazquez substantial prejudice. The District Court’s curative statements to the jury were insufficient because Defense Counsel’s further objection to the Government’s continued mischaracterizations were overruled and because the improper statements were some of the last things the jury heard. The error was not harmless, as the evidence of guilt, though sufficient, was not overwhelming; and reasonable doubt was a central theme of Velazquez’s defense.

Judge Bade dissented, finding that the prosecutor’s comments were unhelpful and possibly misleading but did not affect the verdict.

Appeal from the Southern District of California
Opinion by Paez, joined by Melgren (by designation from the District of Kansas)
Dissent by Bade

Click here to read the opinion

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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