on September 27, 2018
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
A. Krauss Quin M. Sorenson [ARGUED] Counsel for Appellant
Daniel [ARGUED] Counsel for Appellee United States of America
Before: SMITH, Chief Judge, McKEE, and RESTREPO, Circuit
RESTREPO, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.