White-collar criminal cases present unique challenges. White-collar cases often involve vast amounts of information – in addition to a subject matter that’s complicated and all the difficulties of a general federal criminal case.
For example, I had a case that had close to 60 gigabytes of evidence produced by the government, not counting the information that I collected through my own investigation.
The information deluge is a problem in figuring out a case. It’s also a problem in figuring out how to present a case to a jury.
Yet the way this information is conveyed to the jury in a white-collar case is the same as in any trial – it is primarily explained through witnesses or other demonstrative evidence. No trial lawyer sends the jury back with 80 boxes of documents and tells them that if they examine it all, they’ll reach the right verdict.
The government often handles this challenge by using summary evidence. Basically, the Federal Rules of Evidence lets a party introduce evidence that summarizes other evidence in a case. So, the government will frequently make a chart that summarizes what other documents in the case revealed, or what other witnesses said. The summary is admitted as evidence – it gets shown to the jury during trial and it goes back to the jury room during deliberations.*
Of course, summary evidence is often not a friend to the defense. By cherry picking the worst parts of the documents, the government can create an impression for the jury that’s unhelpful in the quest for an acquittal.
The Tenth Circuit, in a mortgage fraud case, recently reversed (one count of) a conviction because the district court admitted a summary chart that was clearly inadmissible. The case is United States v. Irvin.
The core of the mortgage fraud case was that the people on trial – Mr. Vanatta and Mr. Miller – had provided false information on behalf of home buyers so that they could get mortgages. Mr. Sparks helped and was charged. He preferred his chances with the United States Attorney’s Office’s 5K1.1 committee, and testified for the government.
As the Tenth Circuit explained the allegations,
In order to ensure that otherwise unqualified buyers could obtain financing, Sparks and Vanatta enhanced such buyers’ apparent creditworthiness by, among other things, overstating the buyers’ income, altering bank statements to add deposits, and drafting false letters of employment. The mortgage lenders were further induced to extend financing through Miller’s use of inflated home appraisals, overvaluing the relevant properties and thereby enhancing the lenders’ perceived loan-to-collateral ratio.
If you’ve been reading the news lately, or purchased a home between 2003 and 2008, these kinds of allegations are probably not new to you.
The summary evidence in United States v. Irvin summarized a large number of loan documents.
The underlying loan documents, though, were not admitted into evidence. In fact, they were inadmissible as hearsay, because they contained thousands of statements of facts.
Hearsay, for the uninitiated, includes statements in documents that someone wants to get in front of a jury – it isn’t limited to someone repeating what another person said from the witness stand.
So, if you have an email from Larry, and Larry describes something that happened, Larry’s email is hearsay.
Hearsay can be a part of a trial, but there has to be an exception that applies to allow it to be admissible. There are many hearsay exceptions.**
One hearsay exception is for business records. If, for example, a mortgage company keeps certain records for it’s business, and you can meet certain criteria, and have someone from the mortgage company testify that those criteria are met, then you can introduce the loan documents.
Though in Irvin, the government didn’t do that. It had no witness from the company to show that the hearsay exception applied, so it wasn’t able to admit them.
Since the documents that made up the summary document were inadmissible, the summary document itself was inadmissible.
* This is not the same, as a matter of legal doctrine, as a summary witness. The government really likes to use those too. When the government uses a summary witness, an agent will get on the stand and basically narrate what she can about what happened in the case – it’s like the government gets to provide another opening statement. As the D.C. Circuit has observed, there are some problems with summary witnesses too.
** Here’s a cute video on hearsay exceptions that may not make any sense if you haven’t been to law school.
(Why do lawyers think it’s funny to see legal terms used in a song?)