State Sen. Carlos Uresti on Thursday filed a motion for a new trial, claiming jurors were given improper instructions before deliberating. That contention relies on the fact that despite protests from Uresti’s lawyers, the U.S. District Judge David Ezra explained the notion of “willful blindness” to the jurors before sending them to deliberate.
Willful blindness is when a person deliberately keeps himself from knowing all the facts of a situation that would make them liable.
“It is an extremely rare instruction,” Uresti defense lawyer Tab Turner said in an interview with The Texas Monitor. He said Judge Ezra has given the instruction in previous cases. It’s unknown if any were appealed.
The defense based much of its case by insisting that Uresti had no knowledge of misdeeds being committed in connection with fraud being perpetrated at FourWinds Logistics, a now defunct oil company where he served as general counsel, rainmaker and minority owner. According to Uresti’s most recent financial disclosure, he had between 100 and 499 shares in FourWinds.
People are not convicted due to “foolishness, mistakes or negligence,” Turner said in his closing argument. “It takes intentional misconduct. It takes knowledge of a crime. They haven’t proven that knowledge.”
The filing for a new trial alleges that by explaining that Uresti may have chosen to not see evidence, the jurors were led to consider something allegedly irrelevant — that Uresti closed his eyes to unlawful behavior.
Jurors were told they may decide that Uresti “had knowledge of a fact if you find that the defendant deliberately closed his eyes to what would have otherwise been obvious to him. While knowledge on the part of the defendant cannot be established merely by demonstrating that the defendant was negligent, careless, or foolish, knowledge can be inferred if the defendant deliberately blinded himself to the existence of a fact.”
Uresti’s lawyers objected to the instructions and said in the bid for a new trial that “it is accepted law that a willful blindness instruction should be given only in rare circumstances…”
A more probable use of the instruction, Turner said, would be in the case of a person who accepts a suitcase from a known drug cartel and transfers it to another person without questioning its contents.
“It’s our position that a criminal case is very different…in that it requires them to show [intent],” Turner said.
The filing also claims the jury was exposed to what lawyers say are prejudicial statements by Ezra, despite the fact that the statements were made away from jurors.
The case was heavily covered by both local and state media outlets, and “the Court made certain comments — which were made outside the presence of the jury, but before the public and press — were highly published and were of such a highly prejudicial nature as to have likely biased the jury,” according to the filing.
The filing cites a January news article from MySanAntonio.com, the online site of the San Antonio Express-News. The story covers an evidence hearing, held away from jurors, to determine what can and cannot be included in Uresti’s trial.
Citing from the Jan. 17 article, “U.S. Senior District Judge David Alan Ezra referenced a document prosecutors filed under seal last month addressing a meeting between Uresti and Denise Cantu at his law office in the summer of 2016.
“Mr. Uresti allegedly encouraged Cantu not to cooperate with the FBI investigation,” Ezra said, reading from the document that prosecutors filed under seal. “The evidence is proof of consciousness of guilt and an attempt by Mr. Uresti to hinder the investigation.”
The filing also cites a Jan. 19 story from The Texas Monitor which quoted Erza from the bench, speaking with Turner during jury selection.
Quoted in the filing from the Monitor story: “You’re almost going to have to say, ‘Well, we deny he slept with her on multiple occasions. However, if he did’ (it was not prohibited). That really throws water on the denial,” the judge said.
Turned responded, “We’re certainly not claiming that’s the greatest argument.”
“No, it isn’t,” Ezra said. “The jury could say … if he’s really denying it, that he would deny it. He wouldn’t be going to all this trouble to argue it was OK.”
In the filing, Uresti’s defense team contends that “Despite a daily repeated concern about jurors being exposed to the news, Judge Ezra made a multitude of public statements that appear to be heavily biased against the presumed innocence of Carlos Uresti, prior to the return of the jury verdict.”
Jurors came back less than 48 hours after hearing closing arguments on Feb. 20.
The filing for a new trial is a strategic legal move made as part of the appeals process. It allows the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, the appeals court of jurisdiction, to review the case with a less onerous legal requirement.
Uresti’s sentencing is set for June 25.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected]