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In order to establish a conspiracy under 18 U.S.C.S. § 371, the government must prove: (1) an agreement to commit an illegal act; (2) the defendant's knowing and intentional participation in the agreement; and (3) an overt act committed in furtherance of the agreement. The government may rely on circumstantial evidence to establish both the existence of a conspiracy and the defendant's involvement. But although a jury may infer facts from other facts derived by inference, each link in the chain of inferences must be sufficiently strong to avoid a lapse into speculation.
Dirk Jones was charged in two counts of a three-count indictment arising from the purchase and attempted resale of a firearm. Count One charged him with a conspiracy having two objects: to make a false statement to a federally licensed firearms dealer, and to transfer a firearm to a resident of another state. Count Three charged him with possession of a firearm by a felon. A jury found him guilty of both counts, and the district court sentenced him consecutively to 60 months' imprisonment on Count One and three months' imprisonment on Count Three. At the close of the government's case and again at the close of all evidence, Jones had moved for acquittal on both counts under Fed. R. Crim. P. 29. Jones now appeals the denial of that motion only as to Count One, arguing that the government did not present sufficient evidence to support the conspiracy conviction.
Did the government present sufficient evidence to support the conspiracy conviction?
The court noted that the government overstated the strength of its evidence. The sequence of events established at most that defendant was present while another engaged in what the other admitted was an illegal straw purchase of a firearm. However, mere presence while a crime was being committed was insufficient to show that a defendant acted to further a conspiracy. Also, the fact that Jones knew that the other individual bought the gun did not prove that he knew that the other individual planned to sell it to a nonresident of Indiana or that he played any role in the scheme. The court found that the government's case relief on speculation with scant evidentiary support. The court also held that, on remand, the district court should conduct a close examination of the circumstances surrounding the other individual's confession before considering it when imposing a new sentence.