Judge tosses jury's verdicts
In rare instance, Erickson acquits man of charges stemming from undercover drug sting in Fargo
By Archie Ingersoll
GRAND FORKS - In the 250 felony trials U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson had presided over, juries always reached reasonable verdicts and justice was always served.
But the case of Alphonzo Williams has become a glaring exception, Erickson says.
Williams, 34, was arrested in March 2009 in Fargo during an undercover sting and accused of taking part in a drug-dealing conspiracy. After a three-day trial in November in federal court, jurors deliberated for five hours before finding Williams guilty on three of four drug-related counts.
In January, Erickson took the extraordinary step of throwing out the jurors' verdicts and acquitting Williams of the charges against him - a first in Erickson's 16 years as a judge.
"Alphonzo Williams' case is one of those rarest of cases - a trial so tainted and a result so perverse that to allow the verdict to stand would render all of us insecure as citizens," Erickson wrote in a 37-page order of acquittal.
In his order, Erickson said there wasn't enough evidence to prove Williams, who's from Minneapolis, was part of a drug conspiracy.
"Williams was in Fargo to party and meet women," the judge wrote. "He was never seen selling, buying, using or discussing drugs."Erickson doesn't blame the jury, the defense attorney, the prosecutor or the police for the debacle - he blames himself. His order says the jury was pushed off course by "a perfect storm of poor judicial oversight, improper argument, and unlawful references to evidence admitted in error."
While Erickson regrets not making certain rulings and not giving appropriate guidance during the trial, he wrote that he fears race was a factor in the outcome. His order states he does not believe the 12 white jurors from eastern North Dakota acted out of "overt bias," but that they "could have only convicted Williams, not on the evidence against him, but because he was a black man with a prior drug trafficking conviction associating with a known drug trafficker" from the Minneapolis area.
That known trafficker was Rodney Booker, nicknamed "Godzilla." Williams and Booker were charged together with conspiring to distribute nearly 29 grams of crack cocaine and close to 6½ grams of heroin. Booker, 36, struck a plea deal before Williams' trial and is set to be sentenced April 20.
The case has not received any attention in the news, likely because of the relatively small amounts of drugs seized and the fact that just two people were charged in the conspiracy.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Shasky, who prosecuted the case, declined to comment because he's appealing the acquittal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Erickson chose not to comment, also due to the appeal. Shasky must submit his written argument to the appeals court by March 16.
The appeals court will have three options: It can affirm Erickson's ruling to acquit Williams; it can call for a new trial; or it can decide Erickson is wrong and order him to sentence Williams.
Party in Fargo
Erickson's order of acquittal outlines the evidence and testimony presented at trial as follows:
Booker and Williams drove to Fargo on March 18, 2009. Booker testified that he told Williams to come so they could hang out with women and have a "fun time." Booker told jurors Williams wouldn't have come if he had known Booker planned to sell drugs.
In February 2009, an informant for the Cass County Drug Task Force bought crack from Booker in the Fargo area. So when Booker and Williams arrived at the Grand Inn in Moorhead, Al Schmidt, an undercover officer with the task force, called Booker. Schmidt spoke with Booker, who was in his car, while Williams was inside the motel.
That evening, Schmidt met Booker at the True Value parking lot in Moorhead. Schmidt parked his vehicle parallel to Booker's silver 1999 Monte Carlo - Schmidt's driver-side door was about 5 to 6 feet from Booker's passenger-side door.
Schmidt testified that Booker was in the passenger's seat and Williams was in the driver's seat. But Schmidt also said at trial that he and his partner discussed the possibility the driver was another person they knew.
Officers conducting surveillance reported seeing two black men in the Monte Carlo, but none could identify the driver because they were too far away and the lighting was poor. At the time of the meeting, one surveillance officer thought the driver of Booker's car was a white man.
Booker got into the back seat of Schmidt's car, and they agreed to swap $1,900 for 6 grams of heroin and 8 grams of crack. But Schmidt did not have enough money on him, so they planned to meet later in the Big Top Bingo parking lot in Fargo.
At that meeting, the task force arrested Booker, who was on foot in the Big Top Bingo lot, and Williams, who was in the driver's seat of the Monte Carlo in the nearby lot of The Hub. Booker had 6.4 grams of heroin and 8.4 grams of crack on him; Williams had roughly a half-gram of crack, what's known as a "personal use" amount, in his pocket.
Officers searched the motel room and found
8.6 grams of crack, baggies and a digital scale. Booker testified that the drugs in the room were his and that when getting the drugs ready for sale in the room, he took steps to hide them from Williams. Booker told jurors he avoided talking about drugs around Williams during the trip.
Williams made no statements to agents during the investigation and did not take the stand during his trial.
After the verdicts were read, Williams' attorney, Reid Brandborg, made a motion seeking an acquittal, and the judge allowed both sides to submit briefs.
Brandborg's brief in support of an acquittal states Williams wasn't with Booker at the first meeting with Schmidt, and that Schmidt could not have identified Williams with just a brief look in the dark into a vehicle with tinted windows, seeing only the driver's profile.
Asked about the acquittal, Schmidt said he and other agents "thought we had a good case against Mr. Williams, believed we had enough probable cause and evidence for a conviction, and I guess the judge felt he needed to be acquitted. I guess we respect that decision."
In Shasky's brief opposing an acquittal, he states jurors found Williams not guilty on the count of possession with intent to distribute heroin and argues that such a finding shows they considered the evidence on each charge.
He wrote that officers found drugs under pillows on both beds in the motel room, making him wonder, "If Booker was telling the truth that he hid the drugs from the defendant, why didn't he hide all the drugs on his own bed with two pillows or take all of them with him?"
Shasky's brief states the "personal use" amount of crack found on Williams could have been for selling: "People buy personal use amounts. Therefore, dealers sell personal use amounts."
In his order of acquittal, Erickson states Williams was not charged with simply possessing drugs, but rather conspiring to distribute drugs, and that prosecutors did not provide evidence to prove the charges they brought.
To show Williams knowingly took part in the conspiracy, Shasky sought permission to tell the jury about Williams' prior conviction in 2001 in Minnesota for possession with intent to distribute cocaine. The defense argued that his prior conviction was irrelevant and would unfairly prejudice the jury.
Erickson ruled that Williams' prior conviction had value as evidence and allowed the prosecutors to bring it up at trial, but only to determine whether Williams had knowledge of the crimes he was charged with.
During closing arguments, prosecutors asserted that Williams, who had done more than five years in prison on his conviction, knows how dealers operate. "He knows that they arrange these deals by calling each other back and forth. He knows there are sources in the (Twin) Cities," Shasky told jurors. "He's been in the business. He knows it when he sees it."
Such comments troubled the judge. His order states prosecutors improperly used Williams' prior conviction as character evidence to show that he was inclined to commit drug crimes.
Erickson wrote that the way prosecutors brought up the conviction coupled with his incorrect rulings and his lack of oversight on the issue denied Williams a fair trial.
"The jury was unable to ignore evidence that should never have been before it in the first place and could not avoid the taint of the government's improper argument," Erickson's order states.
'The facts that won'
Brandborg, who's been practicing law for six years, said he's only handled five or six cases in federal court, and this was the first one that went to trial.
The judge's order of acquittal surprised the 31-year-old attorney from Fergus Falls, Minn., but he was also surprised by the jury's guilty verdicts. "We thought we had tried a good case, and various things kind of broke in our direction," Brandborg said. "The prior conviction was a huge piece of evidence in this case."
"The fact of the matter is that it (the prior conviction) needed to be nipped in the bud and not come into evidence."
Brandborg, who was appointed to represent Williams, doesn't take credit for the acquittal. "In this case, it was the facts that won the case," he said.
As for race, Brandborg said he raised the issue when questioning an all-white pool of potential jurors. "Of course, everybody assured me that it was going to be a nonissue, and I was satisfied with that," he said.
Despite not having firm proof that race factored into the jury's decision, Brandborg said, it would be naive to think it didn't play a role. "I think it could be an issue, and people could not be conscious of it," he said.
Williams, originally charged in state court, was charged in federal court in June 2009 and the state charges were dismissed. In the federal system, he was held without bond for a little more than 10 months until Erickson released him in early February.
Having to sit behind bars that long and, at one point, having his trial delayed for three months frustrated Williams, but he persevered, Brandborg said. "He's an intelligent guy and probably just realized it wasn't particularly constructive to be upset and whine about it."
Williams is on electronic home monitoring in Minneapolis, pending the appeal. Calls to his home went unanswered; Brandborg said his client asked that his lawyer speak for him.
'Quality of liberty'
University of Minnesota law professor Stephen Cribari said a judge's acquittal is rare, especially after a verdict; a complete acquittal is even rarer. Cribari said he hasn't heard of any other orders of acquittal in North Dakota cases.
Gregory Gordon, a criminal law professor at the University of North Dakota who was once a federal prosecutor, said that whenever 12 jurors find a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and the judge finds that no rational juror should reach such a conclusion, "That's a pretty amazing thing."
Gordon said the rule that allows a judge to overturn a verdict provides a necessary check in the system. "I'm glad we have it because sometimes you can have a runaway jury," he said.
In appealing Erickson's order, Cribari said, prosecutors have "a huge hill" to climb. Erickson "ain't making this ruling knowing the 8th Circuit is going to overturn it," he said.
Like the judge, Cribari, a former federal public defender in Baltimore and Spokane, Wash., was troubled by the prior-conviction issue, explaining that the American criminal justice system allows for the use of character evidence on a very limited basis. "We don't convict people of crimes because of who they are," he said.
"Each trial is about the government's power to punish," Cribari said. "There's a point at which the government should not have the power to punish people."
"That's a very important thing the judge did. That safeguards the quality of liberty in North Dakota."