United States District Court, D. Minnesota
Allen A. Slaughter, United States Attorney's Office, on behalf of Plaintiff
Philip G. Leavenworth, Leavenworth Law Office, on behalf of Defendant Jesus Sotelo-Valdovinos
SUSAN RICHARD NELSON, District Judge.
This matter is before the undersigned United States District Judge on Defendant Jesus Sotelo-Valdovinos' Objections [Doc. No. 256] to Magistrate Judge Janie S. Mayeron's April 16, 2015 Report and Recommendation ("R&R") [Doc. No. 237]. In the R&R, Magistrate Judge Mayeron denied Defendant's Pretrial Motion to Sever Trial [Doc. No. 158]. For the reasons set forth herein, Defendant's Objections are overruled and the R&R is adopted.
In September 2014, the Government charged Sotelo-Valdovinos and eleven other Defendants in a superseding indictment alleging a narcotics conspiracy. (Superseding Indictment [Doc. No. 1].) Specifically, Sotelo-Valdovinos was charged with one count of Conspiracy to Distribute Methamphetamine and Marijuana and one count of Distribution of Methamphetamine. (Id. at 2-3; 10.)
Defendant claims to be a "hechiero, " a Spanish term that he translates loosely as "fortune-teller, shaman, or witch doctor" in the Santa Muerte folk religion. (Def.'s Mot. to Sever at 2-3 [Doc. No. 158].) Defendant moves to sever his trial from that of his co-defendants, arguing that a joint trial will result in prejudice due to the jury's lack of appreciation and understanding of his role in the Santa Muerte folk religion. (Def.'s Mot. to Sever at 2 [Doc. No. 158].) In particular, he contends that without a full understanding of his role as a Santa Muerte hechiero, the jury may misconstrue certain spiritual phrases and words as evidence of a conspiracy. (Id. at 4.) In addition, he argues that the jury's ability to grasp the nuances distinguishing spiritual phrases from conspiratorial ones will be clouded by "the piles of meth and cash that will dominate the trials of his codefendants." (Id.) Accordingly, he argues that his case should be tried separately, in light of his unique circumstances. (Id.)
In the R&R, Magistrate Judge Mayeron found that this case was not one of the "rare cases" warranting severance. (R&R at 5 [Doc. No. 237].) Rather, she found that the co-Defendants in this case were properly joined in that all are alleged to have participated in the same act or transaction or series of acts or transactions constituting an offense or offenses. (Id.) In addition, she determined that Sotelo-Valdovinos failed to make a specific showing that a jury would be incapable of properly weighing and considering the evidence in light of his Santa Muerte practices. (Id. at 5-6.) Finally, as to Defendant's argument of prejudice resulting from "spillover" evidence of "piles of meth and cash" evidence, the magistrate judge found that justice would be best served by a joint trial that gives the jury the opportunity to view the evidence in its full context. (Id. at 6.) Finally, Magistrate Judge Mayeron found that any hypothetical prejudice was outweighed by the inconvenience and expense of a separate trial. (Id. at 6.)
In his Objections, Defendant does not identify how Magistrate Judge Mayeron's recommendations demonstrate clear error. Instead, he restates his previous arguments that his Santa Muerte practices will be misconstrued as criminal in nature and that the jury will be too distracted by the "pile upon pile of drugs and money" entered as evidence against his co-defendants to consider Defendant's "quieter, but equally important, issues." (Objections at 1-2 [Doc. No. 256].) The Government urges the Court to adopt the R&R, noting that Defendant's role as a shaman to his co-defendants actually supports a joint trial:
[Defendant's] guidance as shaman to other co-defendants will be a part of the government's trial presentation for both Defendant Sotelo-Valdovinos and the co-defendants who sought his advice. His guidance as a Santa Muerte shaman was at times itself squarely within the realm of criminality and this criminal conspiracy in particular.
(Govt's Resp. at 2 [Doc. No. 267].) The Government also notes that joinder is particularly appropriate now, given that one of Defendant's co-conspirators, Alfredo "Rito" Basurto-Herrera, who has been a fugitive since October 2014, has recently been located, arrested, and brought to the District of Minnesota for trial. (Id.)
A. Standard of Review
A district court's review of a magistrate judge's order on a nondispositive matter is "extremely deferential." Reko v. Creative Promotions, Inc., 70 F.Supp.2d 1005, 1007 (D. Minn. 1999); see also United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 673 (1980). A nondispositive matter is one that "does not dispose of a charge or defense." Fed. R. Crim. P. 59(a). "A motion to sever is a nondispositive motion." United States v. Morris, 12-CR-26(6) (JRT/JSM), 2012 WL 6194402, at *5 (D. Minn. Dec. 12, 2012) (citing United States v. Ortiz, No. 08-CR-231, 2011 WL 1344213, at *1 (E.D. Wis. Apr. 8, 2011)). The Court will reverse such an order only if it is clearly erroneous or contrary to law. See 28 U.S.C. § ...