United States v. Pelullo – Case Brief Summary (Federal Court)

In United States v. Pelullo, 14 F.3d 881 (3d Cir. 1994), a jury convicted Pelullo of 49 counts of wire fraud and one count of racketeering under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1961-1968 (RICO).

On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed one of the wire fraud counts, Count 54, which constituted one of the RICO predicate acts.

The Third Circuit, however, reversed all the other convictions based largely on the erroneous admission of certain bank records.

On re-trial, the court admitted into evidence the prior wire fraud conviction, Count 54. Additionally, the trial court instructed the jury that "as a matter of law" the defendant had committed the wire fraud offense so the jury did not "have to consider whether the government had proved this offense" in determining whether he had committed the RICO offense. Pelullo, 14 F.3d at 888.

A jury convicted Pelullo on the remaining 48 counts of wire fraud and the one RICO count. Pelullo appealed, arguing that the trial court had erred when it had admitted into evidence the prior conviction, Count 54, and when, in its jury instructions, it applied the prior conviction against him as a matter of law as an element of the RICO offense. Id. at 888-89. The Third Circuit agreed and reversed.

In reaching its holding, the Pelullo Court analyzed the language in both the Sixth and Seventh amendment.

The Sixth Amendment provides:

"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence."

The Court found the "all criminal prosecutions" language to be significant, stating that it "serves to guarantee a right that is absolute in the sense that it applies to all criminal prosecutions or, put differently, to the prosecution of every crime." Id. at 895.

The Court also held that "the language of the Sixth Amendment does not admit of any indication that the absolute right to a jury trial in criminal cases can be modified by reasons of efficiency or public policy arguments." Id.

The Pelullo Court explained that its reading of the Sixth Amendment comports with and is supported by the uniformly accepted notion that in criminal cases there is no mechanism available to the government comparable to making a motion for directed verdict or summary judgment in civil cases. Indeed, no matter how strong and even overwhelming the evidence is, and although a judge can grant a judgment of acquittal in favor of the defendant before or even after the jury renders its verdict, see Fed. R. Crim. P. 29, a criminal defendant in federal courts can be convicted only by the verdict of the jury. Id.

The Court then contrasted the language in the Sixth Amendment with the language in the Seventh Amendment, which provides:

"In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law."

The Court noted that the Seventh Amendment maintains that the right to trial in the civil context is only "preserved" to the extent it existed when the Amendment was ratified in 1791. Id. at 895.

The Court noted that while the use of collateral estoppel was sanctioned in civil cases when the amendments were adopted, it did not exist in the context of criminal cases. Id. at 896.