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United States v. Pratt

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

August 28, 2013

RENEE GILL PRATT, Defendant-Appellant.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana

Before HIGGINBOTHAM, OWEN, and GRAVES, Circuit Judges.

PRISCILLA R. OWEN, Circuit Judge:

Renee Gill Pratt appeals her sentence and conviction of one count of conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)[1] pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 1962(d). We affirm Pratt's conviction but vacate her sentence and remand for resentencing.


Pratt, a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives from 1991 to 2002 and a New Orleans city councilmember from 2002 to 2006, was prosecuted in connection with a federal investigation of several Louisiana politicians and businesspeople who allegedly abused their positions and misappropriated public funds. The Government accused Pratt of using her political influence and power to further the objectives of a criminal enterprise ("the Enterprise") comprising Pratt, members of a well-known Louisiana family, and various nonprofit entities they controlled. Pratt allegedly conspired with members of the Enterprise to illegally funnel state and federal funds and property to members of the conspiracy for their personal benefit.

Initially, the Government indicted Mose Jefferson, Angela Coleman, and Betty Jefferson ("the Jeffersons") on multiple felony charges including embezzlement, money laundering, mail fraud, and conspiracy to commit the same. As the investigation progressed, the Government obtained a first superseding indictment that added Pratt as a defendant and recast the conspiracy charge as a RICO conspiracy. Pratt was charged only with the RICO conspiracy count and not under any of the substantive counts. Pratt moved to sever, arguing that the indictment alleged only a minor role in the conspiracy and that her defense would be prejudiced by the presentation of evidence concerning her codefendants' substantive crimes. The court denied the motion.

After a second superseding indictment was issued, Betty Jefferson and Angela Coleman pleaded guilty, and the Government obtained a third superseding indictment against only Pratt and Mose Jefferson. Pratt filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the indictment did not allege facts to support the court's subject matter jurisdiction and failed to allege actual criminal conduct by Pratt. The court denied the motion. Due to Mose Jefferson's health problems, the Government then proceeded to trial against Pratt alone. That trial resulted in a hung jury. In anticipation of a second trial, the Government obtained a fourth superseding indictment, which named Pratt as the only defendant. As a result, this indictment omitted the substantive-crime counts, but retained references to the Jeffersons and details of their conduct as it related to the alleged conspiracy.

Jury selection for Pratt's second trial began with a thirty-page questionnaire sent to each potential juror. Several of the questions concerned pretrial publicity and potential bias. In addition to general questions about media exposure and consumption, potential jurors were specifically asked if they had heard of Pratt, the Jeffersons, or any of several related individuals and entities and, if so, what opinions the potential jurors had formed. The district court struck some potential jurors based on their answers to the questionnaire.

After conducting voir dire of the remaining potential jurors as a group, the court questioned each potential juror individually. At first the district court permitted the attorneys to ask questions directly, but during individual questioning of the fourth potential juror, the court took control. Pratt's lawyer objected to the court's decision and exclaimed that he had "never seen or met a judge who knew how to conduct a voir dire, except to clean up a witness who [was] already tainted." However, the court refused to cede control and admonished Pratt's attorney not to argue further. During the subsequent two days of questioning, the court entertained objections and permitted the parties to request additional questioning of the venire but did not allow either side to question potential jurors directly. At various times during the questioning, Pratt moved to strike jurors for cause, but the court overruled her objections. At the conclusion of the individual questioning, the district court entertained challenges for cause one last time. Pratt challenged only two jurors, and the court overruled both challenges.[2] Both sides then exercised their peremptory strikes, and Pratt used some of her challenges to strike jurors that she had unsuccessfully challenged for cause. Pratt never moved to dismiss for cause any of the jurors ultimately empaneled.

The Government used five of its eight peremptory strikes to excuse black jurors, leaving only one black juror on the panel. Pratt objected, arguing that the Government's strikes were racially motivated. The Government offered race-neutral reasons for each of the strikes, after which Pratt was given an opportunity to argue that those reasons were pretext for discrimination. The district court denied Pratt's objection, finding the Government's proffered reasons credible. The court then empaneled the jury and two alternates without further objection from either side.

After a 10-day trial, the jury convicted Pratt on the single count of conspiracy to violate RICO. At sentencing, the court calculated a recommended sentencing range under the United States Sentencing Guidelines (the Guidelines) of 78-97 months and sentenced Pratt to 87 months of imprisonment. Pratt appealed and now asserts four points of error: (1) the court failed to question the venire adequately about pretrial publicity, (2) the Government used its peremptory challenges to exclude jurors on the basis of race, (3) the fourth superseding indictment failed to identify sufficiently the pattern of racketeering activity underlying the conspiracy, and (4) the district court improperly calculated the Guidelines sentencing range. We first address the issues pertaining to Pratt's conviction.


Pratt raises two objections to the manner in which the court conducted voir dire. First, she asserts that the district court failed to question the venire sufficiently about their biases, making it impossible to determine whether the seated jury was impartial. Second, she argues that the court improperly rehabilitated jurors who were clearly biased and therefore erred in not dismissing several specific jurors for ...

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