US v. Martinovich: In this appeal, the Fourth Circuit upheld the appellant’s convictions in connection with his investment consulting activities, but vacated the sentence imposed for the district court’s insistence on referring to the advisory federal sentencing guidelines as mandatory. What’s more, the district court’s “ill-advised comments and interference” at trial were so “imprudent and poorly conveyed” as to narrowly miss depriving the appellant of a fair trial. Further, the Fourth Circuit ordered that a different judge be assigned to handle sentencing upon remand.
A jury convicted Martinovich after a four-week trial, and he was sentenced him near the low end of the guidelines, 140 months, with fines & restitution totaling $1.76 million. The government had charged Martinovich with defrauding clients of his investment firm and a subsidiary hedge fund group, alleging that he invested client funds in a solar energy company in anticipation of large returns from the company’s planned initial public offering, which the company eventually abandoned (and it subsequently filed for bankruptcy). Earlier, Martinovich had persuaded a shareholder of the energy company to provide inflated valuations of the company’s stock, so Martinovich could collect higher fees. His convictions included conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, wire fraud, mail fraud, and money laundering.
Martinovich argued on appeal that the district court improperly interfered with the trial proceedings and misstated the law during his sentencing proceedings. While the Fourth Circuit found that the district court had, indeed, erred in interrupting trial and interfering with the defense’s presentation of its case, the error did not give rise to prejudice, in light of the “overwhelming” evidence of Martinovich’s guilt. Moreover, Martinovich’s attorneys did not object at trial to the district court’s conduct. The Fourth Circuit held that Martinovich had not been deprived of a fair trial.
The panel did agree, however, that Martinovich’s sentence was improperly imposed as a result of the district court’s insistence, despite objections from both the government and defense counsel, that the guidelines were mandatory. The Fourth Circuit also determined that it would be futile to remand the case for re-sentencing before the trial court, so it remanded with instructions for a new judge to be assigned for re-sentencing.