7th Circuit affirms murder, racketeering convictions despite government error

Despite improper statements made by the government during closing arguments of a trial, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the defendant’s murder and racketeering convictions, writing that the statements constituted harmless error.

In United States of America v. Juan Briseno, 15-2347, Juan Briseno was indicted and tried for murder, attempted murder and multiple charges related to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act based on his two-year association with an East Chicago gang. 

During closing arguments, the government referenced various allegations connecting Briseno to the attempted murder of Andreas Arenivas. The government also contented that in order for Briseno to not be guilty, its witnesses must have conspired to frame him through false testimony at trial. Finally, the government emphasized that eight of its witnesses deserved to be believed. In his eventual appeal, Briseno would contend that each of those statements was improper.

After deliberations, the jury convicted Briseno of nine counts – conspiracy to participate in racketeering, conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute at least five kilograms of cocaine and 100 kilograms of marijuana, five separate murders in aid of racketeering, attempted murder in aid of racketeering, and use of a firearm during a crime of violence.

Briseno appealed for a new trial, arguing that the government’s statements during closing arguments had improperly referenced evidence pertaining to a prior acquittal, impermissibly shifted the burden of proof to him and vouched for its witnesses in an inappropriate fashion.

Specifically, Briseno argued that the government had improperly argued that he was guilty of attempting to murder Arenivas and of using a firearm in that attempt by referencing five pieces of evidence related to the Arenivas case, such as his alleged stated intent to kill him and the use of the same gun that was used in the murder of Harris Brown, for which Briseno was charged.

Such evidence was improper in the present case because a district judge had acquitted Briseno in the Arenivas case, he said. But 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Ann Williams wrote in a Friday opinion that Briseno’s argument was based on the incorrect assumption that the Arenivas case had no bearing on the current case.

Instead, Williams wrote that the Arenivas evidence in question related to the gang’s practice of attacking individuals who posed a threat to its drug-trafficking enterprise, which relates to the RICO conspiracy charge. Additionally, the gun was also relevant to the Brown murder charge because it was the same gun used in the Arenivas case, so the government did not act improperly by referencing it in closing arguments, she wrote. Further, even if the statements were erroneous, the error was harmless, Williams said.

However, the 7th Circuit did agree with Briseno that the government’s statements implying that witnesses would have had to conspire to submit false testimony in order for him to be not guilty “crossed the line by implying that the jury could not acquit Briseno while at the same time accepting as truthful the testimony of the government’s witnesses.”

But Williams wrote that such an error was not fatal to the government’s case because there was more than sufficient evidence of Briseno’s guilt, and much of that evidence involved credibility determinations as to the government’s witnesses.

Additionally, any improper statements the government made vouching for eight of its witnesses did not deny Briseno of a fair trial, Williams said.

“The statements were solitary and brief in nature, the district judge instructed the jurors both before and after closing arguments that attorney statements were not evidence, and as noted above the vast weight of the evidence was against Briseno,” she wrote.

Finally, Williams wrote that the jury instructions related to the racketeering charges were not erroneous because Briseno did not object to them at trial and because there was no “clear or obvious” error.


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