Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Court Reversed Decision Excluding Old Fraud Evidence

US v. Siegel: Siegel was indicted on multiple counts of wire fraud and mail fraud, in addition to a count of murder to prevent the reporting of those offenses. The charges stem from the latest in a long line of (alleged) scams Siegel perpetrated against family, friends, and strangers. The indictment against her dealt specifically with fraud against a boyfriend before and after his death in 1996. However, the indictment included, as part of the definition of the "scheme or artifice to defraud" allegations against several other people stretching back decades. The Government also filed notice of its intent to use other evidence of prior frauds (and convictions) as FRE 404(b) evidence. Siegel moved to exclude the Government from presenting any such evidence and striking the language in the indictment as surplusage. The district court granted the motions (at least in regard to the Government's case in chief) and the Government appealed.

The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court. In doing so, it first had to determine whether it had jurisdiction to entertain such an interlocutory appeal at all. The court concluded that it did, as the district court's order was final, even if couched as a preliminary order. It precluded the Government's use of the evidence in its case in chief. While the court indicated that it might reconsider its ruling, it said it would do so only at the close of evidence, after jeopardy had attached. Given the finality of the order, the Fourth Circuit concluded it had jurisdiction.

On the merits, the Fourth also sided with the Government. As to the 404(b) evidence, the Government argued that it demonstrated how Siegel would defraud "anyone available, be it family or friend." The Fourth Circuit agreed, holding that such evidence demonstrated Siegel's scheme and her motive for murder. That evidence was also not precluded under FRE 403 as it was neither unduly prejudicial nor likely to cause confusion or repetition at trial. Given those conclusions, the Fourth Circuit held that there was no basis for striking any language from the indictment.

District Judge Kiser (WDVa) dissented with respect to the evidentiary issues, arguing that the majority failed to show appropriate deference to the district court findings and that the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the evidence.

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