CNN recently reported on a complex criminal matter involving, among others, Eisner Gorin LLP client Raul Vivas, which involved a money laundering scheme in the 1990s.
At trial, prosecutors alleged that Mr. Vivas and his co-defendants orchestrated a fraudulent scheme by which they would launder illegal narcotics sale proceeds by conducting “circular” transactions involving precious metals.
Prosecutors argued to the jury at the time that the scheme allowed drug cartels to launder over $300 million in cocaine sale proceeds. The CNN article can be read here.
Despite having no prior criminal history, the defendants, including Mr. Vivas, were sentenced to extraordinarily long prison sentences in excess of 500 years.
The disproportionately severe sentences for non-violent first-offenders were noteworthy at the time and have continued to draw criticism from criminal justice reform advocates and other legal commentators in the years since.
Witness Provided Improper Benefits by FBI
Over 20 years after being incarcerated, a significant development occurred in Mr. Vivas’ case.
One of the government’s key witnesses, a cooperating co-conspirator named Sergio Hochman, disclosed for the first time to his lawyer that he has received improper benefits from his FBI “handlers,” during the course of his cooperation.
Specifically, Hochman was allowed by the FBI to have a conjugal visit with his wife and was taken to an expensive lunch in Malibu.
Had these benefits been disclosed to defense counsel for Mr. Vivas prior to trial, they would have formed the basis for cross-examination of Hochman.
This could have possibly damaged his credibility to the point where the jury would not have believed his damaging testimony against Mr. Vivas.
Habeas Corpus Petition
Realizing the importance of the newly disclosed information, Hochman’s attorney contacted Eisner Gorin partner Alan Eisner, who was hired to pursue a Habeas Corpus petition based on this new evidence.
In 2013, Mr. Eisner filed a motion to overturn Mr. Vivas’ conviction based on a violation of the prosecutor’s Brady and Giglio obligations.
The government is required to provide exculpatory evidence to the defense and to provide evidence which would materially impact the credibility of the government’s witnesses.
Several of the co-defendants joined in Mr. Eisner’s motion as their trials had also been impacted by Hochman’s testimony.
The government initially opposed Mr. Eisner’s motion, expressing skepticism about the extremely belated nature of the disclosures.
Litigation of the motion proceeded for several years before the government finally conceded that the improper benefits had in fact been provided to Hochman.
Prosecutor’s Recommend Defendant’s Immediate Release
The government went a step further, arguing that Mr. Eisner’s motion on behalf of Mr. Vivas, and those of the co-defendants, were meritorious and should result in the defendants’ immediate release.
Though the parties were now aligned in their requests that Mr. Vivas be released due to the official misconduct in failing to disclose the benefits to Hochman, the motions still had to be granted by District Judge Stephen V. Wilson.
He is a former United States Attorney who had worked for the judge who initially imposed the 500-plus year sentences.
Federal Judge Denies Motions
Judge Wilson ordered several rounds of briefing from all parties as well as oral argument. Unfortunately, following roughly eight months of litigation in which the defendants’ motions were unopposed by the government, Judge Wilson denied the motions.
Judge Wilson concluded that while the non-disclosures were inappropriate, the benefits provided to Hochman, even if they caused the jury to disregard his testimony completely, were not prejudicial to the defendants.
In essence, Judge Wilson argued that there were sufficient other sources of evidence – documents, witness statements from other government witnesses, etc. – upon which to convict all of the defendants.
Appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals
All of the defendants have noticed appeals to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals challenging Judge Wilson’s denial of relief. As CNN notes, quoting Stanford Law Professor Robert Weisberg, the denial of an unopposed motion for relief such as this is extremely unusual and presents a gray area of law.
All observers appear to agree that the 500-plus year sentences at the very least are disproportionate compared with those imposed against similarly situated defendants.
Whether or not Mr. Vivas is entitled to legal relief based on the benefits to Hochman may ultimately be determined by the Ninth Circuit.
Mr. Eisner is a partner at Eisner Gorin LLP which specializes in complex litigation in criminal matters in both federal and California state courts.
Our law firm is located at 1875 Century Park E #705, Los Angeles, CA 90067. Contact our office at (877) 781-1570.
Categorised in: Money Laundering
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