Law School Case Brief
United States v. Cessa - 785 F.3d 165 (5th Cir. 2015)
In the context of a sufficiency challenge to a money-laundering conspiracy, direct evidence is unnecessary; each element may be inferred from circumstantial evidence. The knowledge element of the money-laundering offense—knowledge that the transaction involves profits of unlawful activity—is provable (as knowledge must almost always be proved) by circumstantial evidence. The agreement element may be inferred from a concert of action. The government need not prove an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.
Defendants were involved in horse-racing operations for which they were indicted for a money-laundering conspiracy. Two of them were allegedly key players in the horse-racing and money-laundering operation. Jose Trevino Morales operated a horse ranch and related companies. With money from the Los Zetas, he helped his brothers acquire as many as 500 horses. Francisco Cessa acted as an intermediary through whom Los Zetas purchased horses. The other two defendants, Eusevio Huitron and Fernando Garcia—Solis, had comparatively minor roles. Following a three-week jury trial in which 54 witnesses testified, Defendants were convicted. Defendants appealed challenging the sufficiency of the evidence against them.
Were all defendants liable for the money-laundering conspiracy?
The appellate court held that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction of the defendant horse trainer for conspiring to launder money through horse-racing operations because it did not show that the trainer knowledge of the purpose to conceal the source or nature of illegal funds, even though a drug cartel used the overall horse-racing scheme to launder money. Testimony that another defendant received hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash proceeds from the sale of cocaine and that he repeatedly registered horses under various names was sufficient to show his knowledge. The evidence was sufficient to convict the translator for a key subordinate in the conspiracy who could not speak English. Finally, it was error to instruct that the commingling of illegal proceeds with legitimate business funds "is" evidence of intent to conceal or disguise.
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