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United States v. Hargrave

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

January 8, 2020

United States of America
v.
Ronald P. Hargrave, Defendant.

          ORDER AND OPINION

          MARGARET B. SEYMOUR SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Ronald P. Hargrave (“Defendant”) is the sole individual named in a seven-Count Superseding Indictment filed on October 17, 2018. ECF No. 37. Counts 1, 2, 4, and 7 charged Defendant with knowingly, intentionally, and unlawfully distributing Schedule II controlled substances (oxycodone and dextroamphetamine) in violation of 21 U.S.C. § § 841 (a)(1) and (b)(1)(C). Id. Counts 3, 5, and 6 charged Defendant with knowingly, intentionally, and unlawfully distributing Schedule IV controlled substances (alprazolam and clonazepam) in violation of 21 U.S.C. § § 841 (a)(1) and (b)(1)(E)(2). Id. Defendant entered a plea of not guilty on October 30, 2018 and proceeded to trial. ECF No. 44. On July 18, 2019, after a three-day jury trial, Defendant was convicted on all seven Counts. ECF No. 85.

         On September 9, 2019, Defendant filed a motion for a judgment of acquittal or a new trial pursuant to Rules 29 and 33 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. ECF No. 98. Defendant asserts that there was not enough evidence to convict him and the court should therefore overturn the jury's verdicts. Defendant also asserts that he should receive a new trial because allegedly improper character evidence was introduced in violation of Federal Rules of Evidence Rule 404(b) and because the court did not allow one of Defendant's experts to testify pursuant to Federal Rules of Evidence Rule 702. The government filed a response in opposition on September 18, 2019, asserting that the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to convict Defendant and the court did not err in its evidentiary rulings at trial. ECF No. 99. On September 26, 2019, Defendant filed an amendment to his motion. ECF No. 101. In that amendment, Defendant also argues that the government failed to turn over Brady[1] material. The government filed no response to Defendant's amendment.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A. Rule 29, Judgment of Acquittal

         Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure states in part that “[a]fter the government closes its evidence or after the close of all the evidence, the court on the defendant's motion must enter a judgment of acquittal of any offense for which the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction. The court may on its own consider whether the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 29 (a). Furthermore, “[a] defendant may move for a judgment of acquittal, or renew such a motion, within 14 days after a guilty verdict or after the court discharges the jury, whichever is later.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 29 (c)(1). A defendant bringing a Rule 29 challenge based on the sufficiency of the evidence faces a “heavy burden, as appellate reversal on grounds of insufficient evidence is confined to cases where the prosecution's failure is clear.” United States v. Clarke, 842 F.3d 288, 297 (4th Cir. 2016); see also United States v. Biedler, 110 F.3d 1064, 1067 (4th Cir. 1997)(“A defendant challenging the sufficiency of the evidence. . . bears ‘a heavy burden.'”)(quoting United States v. Hoyte, 51 F.3d 1239, 1245 (4thCir. 1995)). Federal court review of challenges to the sufficiency of evidence presented at trial is “sharply limited.” Wilson v. Greene, 155 F.3d 396, 405 (4th Cir.1998) (quoting Wright v. West, 505 U.S. 277, 296 (1992)). A jury's verdict must be upheld if there is substantial evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the government, to support its verdict. Burks v. United States, 437 U.S. 1, 17 (1978). “[S]ubstantial evidence is 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. Burgos, 94 F.3d 849, 862 (4th Cir. 1996). A “substantially supported” verdict may not be overturned because a court “finds the verdict unpalatable or determines that another, reasonable verdict would be preferable.” Id. Courts consider “circumstantial as well as direct evidence, and allow[] the government the benefit of all reasonable inferences from the facts proven to those sought to be established.” United States v. Tresvant, 677 F.2d 1018, 1021 (4th Cir. 1982). The court does not consider witness credibility at the Rule 29 stage and “must assume that the jury resolved all contradictions in favor of the government.” United States v. Romer, 148 F.3d 359, 364 (4th Cir. 1998). The jury is “the sole judge of the credibility of [witnesses].” Biedler, 110 F.3d at 1070.

         B. Rule 33, New Trial

         Rule 33 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure states in part that “[u]pon the defendant's motion, the court may vacate any judgment and grant a new trial if the interest of justice so requires.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 33(a). The decision to grant or deny a Rule 33 motion is left within the discretion of the district court. United States v. Smith, 451 F.3d 209, 216-17 (4th Cir. 2006). “[A] district court should exercise its discretion to grant a new trial ‘sparingly' and that the district court should grant a new trial based on the weight of the evidence ‘only when the evidence weighs heavily against the verdict.'” United States v. Arrington, 757 F.2d 1484, 1486 (4th Cir.1985). (quoting United States v. Wilson, 118 F.3d 228, 237 (4th Cir. 1997)).

         III. ANALYSIS AND DISCUSSION

         A. Trial Background

         At trial, the government had the burden to prove that Defendant provided illegal prescriptions to four individuals: Crystal Kowalski (“Kowalski”), Danielle Williams (“Williams”), Jason Lines (“Lines”), and Mary Flemming (“Flemming”). In order to find Defendant guilty, the government was required to show:

[f]irst, that the defendant distributed the controlled substance alleged in the indictment; [s]econd, that the defendant knew that the substance distributed was a controlled substance under the law at the time of the distribution; and [t]hird, that the defendant distributed the controlled substances outside the usual course of professional practice and without a legitimate medical purpose.

ECF No. 82 at 9.

         The government offered the following witnesses, among others: 1) Jennifer Pyle (“Pyle”), a Doctor's Care employee; 2) Kowalski; 3) Dr. Curtis Franke (“Dr. Franke”), an expert in the general practice of medicine and the prescribing of controlled substances; and 4) Lisa Fisher (“Fisher”), a pharmacist. ECF No. 81-1. Defendant offered: 1) Dr. Jeffrey Siewicki (“Dr. Siewicki”), a pharmacist (proffer only); and 2) Dr. Matthew Wallen (“Dr. Wallen”), an expert in the general practice of medicine and the prescribing of controlled substances.

         B. Counts 1-3

         Kowalski testified that Lines is a drug dealer in the Summerville, South Carolina community. 7/16/19 Tr. 17, 11. Kowalski testified that she bought “whatever [drugs] [Lines] had. . . Xanax, heroin cocaine. . . .” 7/16/19 Tr. 17, 15. Kowalski stated that she eventually could not obtain drugs from Lines. 7/16/19 Tr. 21, 22-25. However, Lines put Kowalski in contact with Defendant. 7/16/19 Tr. 22, 4-6. Kowalski stated that she called Defendant “to get prescription medications that [she] wanted.” 7/16/19 Tr. 22, 10. Kowalski arranged to meet Defendant after hours on March 7, 2017 at his place of employment, Doctor's Care in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, in order to exchange “sexual favors” for drugs and money. 7/16/19 Tr. 22, 11-25. According to Kowalski, she arrived at ...


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