Sunday, September 28, 2008

Jailhouse Rock

United States v. Cote, No. 07-1852 (2d. Cir. September 24, 2008) (Pooler, Sotomayor, CJJ, Restani, JCIT)

Paul Cote was a prison guard at the Westchester County jail. On October 10, 2000, during an altercation, Cote repeatedly punched and stomped on an inmate’s head while the inmate lay on the floor. The inmate never regained consciousness and died about fourteen months later, in December of 2001.


Cote was originally tried in state court, before the inmate died; he was acquitted of first-degree assault, and convicted of a lesser offense, second-degree assault. Hewas sentenced to three months’ imprisonment.

Subsequently, Cote’s counsel learned of a federal civil rights investigation into the incident. The feds moved quite slowly and, nearly five years after the event, notified counsel that an indictment was forthcoming. Counsel wanted time to persuade the government not to pursue the case; on counsel’s advice, Cote executed an agreement tolling the statute of limitations for ninety days. The government, on its part, agreed not to seek a “death resulted” indictment, which would have carried a maximum period of imprisonment of life, or even the death penalty. As the negotiations wore on, they signed a second tolling agreement for another two months. Ultimately, however, counsel failed to dissuade the government. Cote was charged with with violating the inmate’s civil rights under color of law, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 242.

The Trial

At trial, the government called several eyewitnesses: another prison guard and three inmates. There was also medical evidence describing the extensive trauma that the inmate suffered to his face and head. He received multiple blows, at least some of which required the application of significant force.

The defense called two competing medical experts, who opined that all of the inmate's injuries had been caused by a different guard, who had pushed the inmate onto the concrete floor before Cote arrived.

Post-Verdict Rulings

The jury convicted Cote, but the district court granted his post-verdict Rule 29 and Rule 33 motions.

For the Rule 29 motion, the bulk of the district court’s ruling rested on its view that the testimony implicating Cote was incredible. The court felt that the inmate witnesses had exaggerated their accounts out of vindictiveness, and that the testimony of the other guard was suspect, perhaps as an effort to deflect suspicion from himself. Finally, the court held that there was insufficient evidence that Cote acted with the requisite intent. It noted that the state court “got it right” by finding that Cote acted recklessly, not intentionally.

Alternatively, the district court granted a new trial under Rule 33, for the same reasons. It also sua sponte concluded that the jury had not been properly charged on intent, and that the tolling agreement was involuntary.

The Appeal

On this, the government’s appeal, the circuit reversed. As to the Rule 29 motion, the court agreed with the government that the evidence was sufficient. None of the inconsistencies in the witnesses’ accounts rendered the testimony incredible as a matter of law. Indeed, “the jury was entitled to reject the extreme of the testimony and conclude that the truth law somewhere in between.”

Moreover, under Rule 29, the court must “give full play to the right of the jury to determine credibility, and must draw all possible inferences in favor of the government.” Thus, the court was “not entitled to reject the bulk of the government’s evidence as not credible for purposes of granting” the Rule 29 motion.

The circuit also found that the district court erred in finding insufficient evidence of specific intent. Here, the nature of the force itself, Cote’s efforts to falsify an incident report and induce others to do so, and the words Cote used as he beat the inmate - a warning not to disrespect corrections officers - all entitled the jury to find that Cote acted with the requisite intent.

The circuit likewise reversed the new trial grant under Rule 33, finding that the court abused its discretion. Here, the discrepancies in the testimony were fairly minor, and did not warrant a new trial. Nor was the district court correct that the jury was improperly instructed on intent, or that the tolling agreement was coerced.

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