News Roundup

The first criminal trial of a former U.S. president began this week in Manhattan. Donald Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, based on allegations that he dishonestly classified payments to porn actor Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal as legal expenses, when they were in fact hush-money payments to hide affairs. Falsifying business records is a misdemeanor in New York, but the crime is elevated to a felony when done with intent to conceal a second crime. District Attorney Alvin Bragg has stated that the evidence will show that Trump falsified the records with the intent to conceal campaign finance and tax crimes.

On Monday, the proceedings began with pre-trial evidentiary arguments, and presiding Judge Juan Merchan excluded certain pieces of evidence as too prejudicial. For example, prosecutors will not be permitted to play the audio recording of the “Access Hollywood” tape to the jury, but they will be permitted to introduce the campaign emails discussing the tape.

Jury selection is well underway. 50 of the original 96 prospective jurors were excused immediately after stating they could not be fair and impartial. The lawyers have scrutinized jurors’ prior social media posts to uncover potential biases as they decide whom to strike. As of today, 12 jurors and one alternate have been selected, with five more alternates to be picked.

Read on for more criminal law news.

COVID fraud report. The U.S. Department of Justice released a report this week detailing the work of the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force. Per the report, the DOJ has brought charges against more than 3,500 defendants, obtained more than 400 civil settlements, and recouped more than $1.4 billion in fraudulently obtained funds. The majority of the fraud cases relate to the Paycheck Protection Program, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, and false claims for unemployment benefits. In outlining its accomplishments, the DOJ made a case for more money to continue the work of investigation and prosecution, and President Biden has voiced support for legislation that would provide additional resources. The DOJ also urged legislators to change the law so that a 10-year statute of limitations would apply to all pandemic fraud offenses.

Armorer convicted in movie set shooting. Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, the armorer responsible for handling the weapons during the shooting of the film, “Rust,” received the maximum possible sentence of 18 months imprisonment for involuntary manslaughter in New Mexico this week. The conviction stemmed from her failing to ensure that a gun was loaded with dummy rounds rather than live ammunition, leading to the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. The evidence at trial showed that Gutierrez-Reed brought a box of live ammunition onto the film set from home and that these live rounds gradually spread throughout the set. Prosecutors used jail calls made after her conviction in March to show lack of remorse at the sentencing hearing. Alec Baldwin, the actor who was practicing a draw from the shoulder holster when the gun went off, has a trial date set for July.

Scam call leads to shooting. 81-yr-old William Brock was charged with murder in Ohio for the shooting of Loletha Hall, 61, after apparently receiving a scam phone call. The scam caller demanded $12,000 to get Brock’s nephew out of jail, threatening to kill him and his nephew if he did not comply. Meanwhile, Hall, an Uber driver, received a related scam request instructing her to pick up a package from Brock’s residence. When Hall asked Brock about the package she was sent to retrieve, Brock held Hall at gunpoint, demanding to know who had called him. As Hall attempted to get back in her car, Brock shot and killed her.

NC lawmakers consider ban of tianeptine. We last blogged about tianeptine, a highly addictive substance sold as a dietary supplement, here. The drug is sometimes used to treat anxiety and depression, but at high doses causes euphoria similar to that caused by some opioids. It has several potential negative health effects including risk of death. Now NC legislators are considering a ban of the substance. In the meantime, the drug, sometimes referred to as “gas station heroin,” remains on the shelves of convenience stores throughout the state. Nine other states have banned the drug.

Homicides down nationally. Data analysis from the first quarter of 2024 shows that homicides in major U.S. cities fell at “one of the fastest rates of decline ever recorded.” The sample includes almost 200 cities with varying population sizes. The decline of 20.8% comes on the heels of a substantial decline in murders over the course of 2023. The author of the report noted that all crimes are down significantly in 2023 as compared to 2022, with the exception of motor vehicle theft. Charlotte, Greensboro, Durham, and Winston-Salem are included in the analysis. Alexander Cowell recently blogged about violent crime trends in North Carolina here.

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend.