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United States v. Williams-Combs

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

May 3, 2018



          Robert F. Rossiter, Jr. United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on defendant Sharon Williams-Combs's (“Williams-Combs”) oral Motion for Judgment of Acquittal on Counts I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, X, XI, XIII, and XIV of the Indictment. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 29. In accordance with the Court's Order dated April 6, 2018 (Filing No. 69), Williams-Combs and the government each provided written briefs. For the reasons stated below, Williams-Combs's Motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On February 22, 2017, Williams-Combs was charged with fourteen counts of willfully aiding or assisting in the preparation or presentation of a false or fraudulent tax return in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7206(2). Those counts related to Williams-Combs's preparation of tax returns for Denesha Lockett (“Lockett”), Latonya Ashley (“Ashley”), Shayla Irvin (“Irvin”), Queeny McMillian (“McMillian”), Laquante Maxwell (“Maxwell”), and Naquieta Harper (“Harper”). At trial on those charges, each of those six women testified for the government.

         Based on what the government saw as some gaps or inconsistencies in that trial testimony, the government sought to admit unsworn statements the witnesses had previously made to investigators about their income and expenses and the documentation they provided to Williams-Combs. The government argued the witnesses should be considered “unavailable” as witnesses under Federal Rule of Evidence 804(a)(3) because they testified to having trouble remembering some key facts. The Court sustained Williams-Combs's objection to the government's use of those prior statements as substantive evidence but permitted the government to present prior statements from McMillian, Ashley, Irvin, and Lockett as impeachment evidence. The Court instructed the jury to consider that evidence not as proof of the facts at issue but only to assist in determining witness credibility.

         The government also presented evidence from two Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) investigators, Special Agent Adam Mulari (“Agent Mulari”) and Special Agent Erika Harris (“Agent Harris”), and from IRS tax expert Kristy Morgan. During the direct examination of Agent Harris, the government played an audio recording of Agent Harris's undercover interaction with Williams-Combs. Agent Harris, who had posed as a taxpayer seeking tax preparation services from Williams-Combs, testified Williams-Combs told her how she could increase her return with the Earned Income Tax Credit (“EITC”) by adding income from a personal business. Agent Harris explained Williams-Combs then amended an accurate return to include a false Schedule C form and additional personal-business income Williams-Combs knew Agent Harris had not received.

         The jury also heard testimony from Diane Lamb (“Lamb”), a representative of the company where Williams-Combs worked at the time she prepared the tax returns listed in the indictment. Lamb testified about the company's operating procedures and the training Williams-Combs received. She also testified the company's records did not contain documentation of the income and expenses claimed on the tax returns Williams-Combs prepared that were listed in the indictment.

         At the close of the government's case in chief, Williams-Combs moved for a judgment of acquittal on all charges. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(a). The Court reserved decision on the motion, and the case went to the jury. On April 6, 2018, the jury found Williams-Combs guilty on all counts. Except as to counts IX and XII, for which she conceded there was sufficient evidence, Williams-Combs renewed her motion for judgment of acquittal under Rule 29(c), arguing the evidence was insufficient to convict her on the remaining counts. The Court permitted the parties to brief the issues. They have done that, and this matter is ready for decision.


         A. Standard of Review

         Rule 29(a) requires the Court to “enter a judgment of acquittal of any offense for which the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction.” “Evidence supporting a conviction is sufficient ‘if any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.'” United States v. Boesen, 491 F.3d 852, 856 (8th Cir. 2007) (quoting United States v. Weston, 4 F.3d 672, 674 (8th Cir. 1993)).

         In considering such a motion, “the district court has ‘very limited latitude.'” United States v. Pardue, 983 F.2d 843, 847 (8th Cir. 1993) (quoting United States v. Jewell, 893 F.2d 193, 194 (8th Cir. 1990)). The Court does “not weigh the evidence or assess the credibility of witnesses; that is the province of the jury.” United States v. White, 794 F.3d 913, 918 (8th Cir. 2015). “The fact that key testimony was provided by cooperating [witnesses] does not undermine the sufficiency of the evidence, as the jury is presumed to take that fact into consideration when determining the credibility of the witnesses.” United States v. Peebles, 883 F.3d 1062, 1068 (8th Cir. 2018).

         “Jury verdicts are not lightly overturned.” United States v. Hood, 51 F.3d 128, 129 (8th Cir. 1995). “If evidence consistent with guilt exists, [the Court] will not reverse simply because the facts and circumstances may also be consistent with some innocent explanation.” United States v. Lundstrom, 880 F.3d 423, 436 (8th Cir. 2018); accord United States v. Burks, 934 F.2d 148, 151 (8th Cir. 1991) (“If the evidence rationally supports two conflicting hypotheses, the reviewing court will not disturb the conviction.”). “Evidence supporting conviction ‘need not preclude every outcome other than guilty.'” United States v. Pierson, 544 F.3d 933, 938 (8th Cir. 2008) (quoting United States v. Ramirez, 362 F.3d 521, 524 (8th Cir. 2004)). “A conviction will be reversed only if, after viewing the evidence most favorably to the verdict and giving the government the benefit of all reasonable inferences, no construction of the evidence supports the jury's verdict.” United States v. Worman, 622 F.3d 969, 977 (8th Cir. 2010).

         B. Sufficiency ...

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