COURT DENIES NEW TRIAL FOR TOP CNMI OFFICIALS

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Former Lt. Gov. Villagomez among trio convicted of fraud

By Ferdie de la Torre

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, July 7, 2009) - The federal court yesterday denied the request for a new trial for former Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Villagomez, James A. Santos and Joaquina V. Santos in the Rydlyme corruption case. In a separate ruling, the federal court also denied a motion to acquit the three despite their earlier convictions.

U.S. District Court for the NMI Chief Judge Alex R. Munson said the three failed to prove allegations that the jurors were biased.

"The motion for a new trial based on juror and prosecutorial misconduct is denied," Munson said. ."The evidence is sufficient for a rational trier of fact to find defendants guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of each count in the indictment."

He said there is enough evidence to sustain the convictions.

Villagomez and the Santos couple are set to be sentenced on July 28, 2009.

The jury on April 24 found Villagomez and the Santoses guilty of conspiracy to commit offenses against the U.S., wire fraud, theft concerning a program receiving federal funds, and bribery concerning a program receiving federal funds.

The three’s lawyers-David J. Lujan, Victorino Torres, and Ramon Quichocho-had asked for a new trial because seven jurors were allegedly blood relatives of some government witnesses and that they failed to inform the court of these relationships, tantamount to jury misconduct. The lawyers presented the declaration of Herman Guerrero, who did a genealogical history of the jurors and witnesses to trace their blood relations.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric O’Malley had questioned, however, why the defense lawyers waited until the guilty verdict before looking into the alleged juror relationship issue. He said the U.S. government takes issue with the argument that each juror was aware of his or her alleged relationship to the witnesses.

In his order issued yesterday, Munson said the defendants failed to demonstrate "actual bias" among the jurors and that he finds Guerrero’s testimony unconvincing.

He pointed out that Guerrero does not claim to have personal knowledge of the connections, nor was he offered as an expert. Munson said he will therefore treat Guerrero’s declaration as an opinion of a lay witness.

"Accordingly, although the declaration will be considered, the court will not treat them as expert testimony and finds them unconvincing," he said.

Further, Munson said, although familial connections between jurors and witnesses are important, they are less problematic than relationships between jurors and the defendants or the attorneys.

Munson said witnesses play an essential role in any trial, but they are not generally affected by the outcome in the same way as the parties and attorneys are.

He said the defendants failed to fulfill their initial burden to demonstrate to the court that any of these jurors were intentionally dishonest.

Even if the court found that the allegations of dishonesty were true, Munson said the defendants also must demonstrate that a correct response would have provided a valid basis for a challenge for cause.

The burden has not been fulfilled, he noted.

Munson said the singled out jurors in this motion each stated under oath that they were able to take the evidence as it was presented and make an impartial decision based solely on the evidence before them.

He said the defendants failed to convince the court that these jurors would have been validly challenged for cause even if these alleged relationships are true and were revealed.

As such, Munson said, defendants failed to show that an honest answer "would have created a valid basis for a challenge for cause."

Accordingly, he said, the defendants failed to demonstrate that the jurors were actually biased.

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