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Ninth Circuit Reverses Drug Smuggling Conviction

United States v. Velazquez Docket: 19-50099, Opinion Date: June 23, 2021. The Ninth Circuit vacated defendant's conviction for importing controlled substances into the United States, and remanded for a new trial. At trial, defendant took the stand and testified he did not know the car he was driving contained drugs—what is sometimes referred to as the "blind mule" defense. During closing argument, the government compared the reasonable doubt standard to the confidence one needs to "hav[e] a meal" or "travel to . . .court"—without worrying about the "possib[ility]" that one will get sick or end up in an accident. The panel agreed with defendant that this improper argument, and the district court's failure to cure it, caused him prejudice. The panel explained that the ultimate issue at trial boiled down to whether the government proved that defendant knew about the drugs in his car beyond a reasonable doubt. However, the prosecutor's comments created an unacceptable risk that an honest, fair-minded juror would succumb to the prosecutor's personal—rather than constitutional—view of the government's burden of proof to obtain a conviction and therefore overlook his or her reasonable doubts. In this case, the evidence demonstrating defendant's knowledge was not overwhelming and the district court failed to neutralize the prejudice. Therefore, the panel concluded that it is more probable than not that the misconduct materially affected the verdict.

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