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United States v. Blunt

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

July 12, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
RENITA BLUNT, Appellant UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
EARL LAFAYETTE HALL, III, Appellant

          Argued on September 27, 2018

          On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Crim. No. 1:16-cr-00050-001 and 002) District Judge: Hon. Sylvia H. Rambo

          Jennifer P. Wilson [ARGUED] Counsel for Appellant Renita Blunt

          Ronald A. Krauss Quin M. Sorenson [ARGUED] Counsel for Appellant Earl Hall

          Kim D. Daniel [ARGUED] Counsel for Appellee United States of America

          Before: SMITH, Chief Judge, McKEE, and RESTREPO, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          RESTREPO, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Before us is an uncommon situation in which two married criminal defendants-Earl Lafayette Hall, III, and Renita Blunt-seek to be re-tried separately so that they may each have an opportunity to present their cases without any unwarranted constraints on their trial rights. Because each of the defendants is entitled to a trial free of unfair prejudice, we will reverse the District Court's denial of each of their motions for severance-on grounds distinct to each defendant-and vacate Hall and Blunt's convictions and sentences.

         I.

         Hall and Blunt were convicted of engaging in a scheme from January 2013 to June 2015 to collect unemployment compensation benefits from federal and state agencies by using the identities of military servicepeople. They were appointed separate defense counsel at the onset of their case, each of whom engaged in extensive motion practice at every stage of the trial proceedings. Because Hall and Blunt only challenge select motions rulings by the learned District Court, we will limit our review to those motions.

         A. Pre-trial Motions

         On November 9, 2016, the Government jointly charged Hall and Blunt with twelve counts of mail fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1341; nine counts of money laundering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(1)(B)(i); six counts of aggravated identity theft, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1028A(a)(1); one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1349; and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(h). Hall and Blunt, who had married in March 2016 prior to trial proceedings and remained married throughout the proceedings, each filed a motion for severance (each, a "Severance Motion") of their trials.

         Blunt filed her Severance Motion on February 23, 2017. Hall App. 54. In support of her motion, she argued the following:

Defendant Blunt is confronted with a dilemma: she wishes to provide exculpatory testimony on her own behalf at trial, but her testimony is likely to inculpate her husband, Defendant Hall. As a result, a joint trial will force her to choose between testifying on her own behalf, which testimony is likely to inculpate her husband, or not testifying at all in order to avoid testifying adversely to her husband.

Id. at 52. Blunt renewed her Severance Motion prior to jury selection.

         In Hall's Severance Motion, he argued that "if Ms. Blunt testifies, it appears her testimony would seriously jeopardize Mr. Hall's right to a fair trial," and that "Ms. Blunt makes clear in her brief that if she testifies, her testimony is likely to inculpate her husband." Id. at 58 (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). He cited Blunt's Brief in Support of her Motion for Severance:

Ms. Blunt will testify that Mr. Hall asked her to call the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and pretend to be Shawnta Williams (which is the name of one of the false unemployment compensation claimants), and that she only did so after Mr. Hall coerced and threatened her into placing the call by telling her that he needed her to make the call or else he would be harmed. Mr. Hall told her that Williams was not a real person. She will testify that Mr. Hall told her what to say during the call, and he provided her with Williams' social security number and date of birth. She will testify that when she questioned Mr. Hall about the Williams phone call, he became angry and pushed her, resulting in her having a chipped tooth.

Id. at 59 (quoting Dist. Ct. Doc. No. 93, at 8). The District Court denied both Hall and Blunt's Severance Motions without a hearing. Instead, it stated only that it was adopting the reasoning set forth in the Government's response to both motions.

         At a later pre-trial conference, Blunt made an oral motion for severance, stating that she was pursuing the motion on a new ground of "mutually antagonistic defenses . . . [namely, ] that [Blunt] acted under duress." Blunt App. 67. The Government argued that the District Court had already considered the facts underlying Blunt's duress argument-the threat to compel Blunt's phone call, the chipped tooth-in denying the initial Severance Motion. The District Court did not respond on the record to Blunt's oral motion, but the trial proceeded.

         B.Trial ...


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