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USA v. Quinton Oshumond Littlejohn

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

September 18, 2019

USA
v.
QUINTON OSHUMOND LITTLEJOHN

          ORDER

          ROBERT J. CONRAD, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court upon the defendant’s post-verdict Rule 29 Motion for a Judgment of Acquittal, or in the alternative Rule 33 Motion for a New Trial, [1] (Doc. No. 57), and the government’s response in opposition, (Doc. No. 58).

         I. BACKGROUND

         The defendant proceeded to jury trial on charges of possessing a firearm as a felon (Count One), possessing 28 grams or more of a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine base with intent to distribute (Count Two), and possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense (Count Three).[2] (Doc. No. 1: Indictment). At the close of the government’s proof, the Court denied the defendant’s motion for judgment of acquittal under Rule 29(a) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. The defendant called two expert witnesses and renewed his Rule 29 motion as the close of his evidence, which the Court denied. The jury found the defendant guilty of each count, including the 28-gram drug quantity. (Doc. No. 53: Verdict).

         II. DISCUSSION

         The instant motion seeks judgment of acquittal under Rule 29, or, in the alternative, a new trial under Rule 33. Under Rule 29, a guilty verdict must be sustained “if, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, the verdict is supported by substantial evidence, ” that is, evidence which a reasonable finder of fact could accept as adequate to support the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. United States v. Burfoot, 899 F.3d 326, 334 (4th Cir. 2018). Under Rule 33, a new trial can be ordered if required in the interest of justice, but “a jury verdict is not to be overturned except in the rare circumstance where the evidence weighs heavily against it.” Id. at 340 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         A. Sufficiency of the Evidence

         The defendant accuses the government of playing a “shell game” with the evidence, which he claims failed to prove knowing possession of the firearm and cocaine base at issue. (Doc. No. 57: Motion at 5-9). The nature of the case did call for the government to present circumstantial evidence from which the jury could infer constructive possession of the drugs and gun, but that evidence was sufficient for a reasonable juror to accept as adequate to support the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt on each count.

         In light most favorable to the government, the trial evidence tended to show that on September 21, 2017, U.S. Probation and local police officers arrived at the residence the defendant shared with others in Charlotte, North Carolina, to conduct a search according to the conditions of his federal supervised release.[3] (Doc. No. 65: Trial Tr. Vol. I at 4). In his bedroom, they located an Alcatel flip phone, which he admitted was his, on a nightstand with the defendant’s North Carolina Id. (Id. at 8). Text messages on the Alcatel phone indicated drug trafficking to the probation officer who reviewed them on the scene.[4] (Id. at 15). Rubber gloves, which another probation officer said are typically used in drug distribution, were found in the drawer of the nightstand. (Id. at 34). A Samsung smart phone was found on a dresser in the bedroom. (Id. at 8, 10). The defendant denied that phone was his, but it displayed his picture. (Id.). Text messages on the Samsung smart phone sent and received on the days leading up to the search similarly indicated drug trafficking to the police officer who forensically extracted them.[5] (Doc. No. 66: Trial Tr. Vol. II at 352-55). Over $4, 000 in cash, mostly $20 bills, was found in two jackets in the defendant’s closet, which indicated drug trafficking to the officer who logged items from the search because drug sales are commonly in $20 amounts. (Doc. No. 65: Trial Tr. Vol. I at 71-78).

         Local police obtained a search warrant for the house and three cars parked on the property. (Id. at 21, 54). On top of the refrigerator in the kitchen, they found two digital scales, one with white residue and one with green flakey material, like marijuana, along with boxes of sandwich bags, which a police officer testified are commonly used in drug packaging. (Id. at 79-83). In a bedroom, they found a container with marijuana in tied-off corners of bags similar to those found in the kitchen, which also indicated to that officer packaging for distribution.[6] (Id. at 86-87).

         Residents at the house provided keys for two of the cars, a Cadillac and a Nissan, neither of which contained contraband. (Id. at 88-89). However, police were told no one at the house had a key to a dark colored Chevrolet Malibu, which was parked behind the Nissan, blocking it in. (Id. at 53, 90, 94). A police officer spoke by telephone with the defendant’s mother, who had left while the search warrant was being obtained. (Id.). She said her niece had rented the car, but she would not provide the person’s name or phone number. (Id. at 90-92). A firefighter used a tool to unlock the Malibu so police could search it. (Id. at 97).

         In the center console, an officer found a digital scale, a bag of suspected cocaine base, a .357 caliber revolver, [7] and another Samsung smart phone.[8] (Id. at 99-100). There were boxes of surgical gloves in the back seat and in the trunk. (Id. at 100-01). A Western Union receipt in the glove box showed the defendant had wired money on September 12, 2017, at a location within 3 miles of the residence. (Id. at 187, 191). A photograph extracted from the smart phone in the car showed the defendant driving what the jury could have reasonably concluded was the same car. (Id. at 127-29; Doc. No. 66: Trial Tr. Vol. II at 316-18; Gov’t Ex. 34-d). A photograph taken on September 12, 2017, extracted from the smart phone in the bedroom was similar. (Doc. No. 66: Trial Tr. Vol. II at 347-48; Gov’t Ex. 35-c). Like the phone in the bedroom, the phone in the car contained text messages dated in the weeks leading up to the search indicating drug trafficking.[9] The bag from the console contained 28.3 grams of cocaine base. (Doc. No. 65: Trial Tr. Vol. I at 161, 165). DNA material lifted from the grip of the gun matched the defendant. (Id. at 212-13).

         Counsel for the defendant put on a vigorous defense, including penetrating cross-examination and expert testimony, to challenge the government’s case. Even so, the evidence did not weigh heavily against the jury’s verdict. For example, a witness confirmed on cross-examination that he saw the defendant driving a black Chevrolet Impala on September 4, 2017. (Id. at 185). However, a police officer who owns a Chevrolet Malibu and drives a Chevrolet Impala for work testified that their body styles are similar. (Id. at 198-200).

         Cross-examination highlighted that no latent fingerprints were left on the gun, ammunition, or bag of drugs, but the examiner also testified that guns have only an 8% success rate of finding usable prints. (Doc. No. 66: Trial Tr. Vol. II at 255, 269-70). A DNA expert testified it was possible that the defendant’s DNA was transferred from another part of the car to the grip by the way the police handled the gun. (Id. at 394-96). On the contrary, the police DNA expert testified it was unlikely that enough of the defendant’s DNA could be transferred that way and still result in the major profile found on the grip. (Doc. No. 65: Trial Tr. Vol. I at 222). A forensic chemist testified that when she weighed the cocaine base it was 26.2 grams, but she admitted it could have lost weight in the 15 months since it was tested at the police laboratory. (Doc. No. 66: Trial Tr. Vol. II ...


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