Jury trials are very rare in the federal system. Acquittals are even rarer.
Despite the overwhelming odds, C. Justin Brown and Lylian Romero won a hard fought “not guilty” verdict last week, vindicating their client in United States v. Johnson, CCB-19-22.
Johnson was charged with federal witness retaliation, and prosecutors aggressively pursued the case. Johnson maintained his innocence from the outset. A four-day jury trial ensued in the United States District Court for Maryland, with Judge Catherine Blake presiding. Prosecutors attempted to focus the trial on prior bad acts that Johnson had committed earlier in his life, but the defense was able to fight off much of this evidence in pretrial motions litigation.
Once the jury was seated, prosecutors tried to hang their case on the testimony of two cooperating witnesses, both of whom claimed that Johnson had confessed to them. The jailhouse cooperators were promised reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony. The Government proceeded in this manner despite the fact that jailhouse informants are among the least reliable witnesses. In fact, one of the Government’s cooperating witnesses had testified against two other defendants in unrelated cases, and both of those cases resulted in acquittals. (The judge, however, found that this fact was irrelevant and did not allow it into evidence in Johnson’s case).
Brown and Romero defended the case by attacking the credibility of the cooperators, pointing out weaknesses in the Government’s investigation, and articulating a counter-narrative – telling the Jury what really happened. Mr. Johnson testified credibly in his own defense.
After hearing all the evidence, the Jury deliberated over the course of two days. On January 10, 2020, they reached a decision and passed a note to the Judge. The courtroom deputy asked the Jury for its verdict as to count one of the indictment, and the Jury Foreman solemnly stated “Not Guilty.”
While we will never know how and why the Jury reached its decision, it would appear that the Jury wisely rejected the testimony of the Government’s cooperating witnesses and sided with the more credible testimony of Mr. Johnson and other defense witnesses.
So how hard is it to win a federal jury trial? In the most recent statistics, from 2018, less than 1 percent of federal defendants won at trial. According to the Pew Research Center, there were only 320 acquittals nationwide out of some 80,000 federal cases.
This represents a fundamental flaw in our criminal justice system. The laws and rules have become so favorable to the Government that the notion of a “fair” trial is questionable. Federal judges penalize defendants so severely for going to trial that the risk often becomes untenable. Meanwhile, prosecutors, who have all the resources in the world, take advantage of this dynamic, and threaten recalcitrant defendants with sentencing enhancements and additional charges if they exercise their constitutional right to a trial. The result is that most defendants – even those who are innocent – decide to cut their losses and accept a guilty plea on the Government’s terms.
At Brown Law, we are acutely aware of this dynamic. We do not take lightly the decision to go to trial. Nor do we do so unless we have explored – and exhausted – every other option. But when we do bring a case to trial, we come prepared – and we come to win.