Judge Neff issues decision overturning conviction

by Cynthia Price and
from Court documents

U.S. District Court Judge Janet Neff has overturned a conviction in a high-profile kidnapping and murder case.

Her underlying assertion is that the government, which tried two people for the crimes, failed to make the case that the defendant was directly related to the case, instead proving merely that he had a direct connection to the other defendant.

In her 36-page decision filed Dec. 21, Case 1:08-cr-00068-JTN  Doc #705, Neff laid out the history of the case in detail. The initial summary reads: “Defendant Raogo Ouedraogo and his co-defendant Rami Saba were charged in a twelve-count Third Superseding Indictment with conspiracy to commit bank fraud, conspiracy to commit interstate murder-for-hire, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, kidnapping resulting in death, four counts of attempted financial institution fraud (bank fraud) and four counts of aggravated identity theft, related to the disappearance and presumed death of Donald Dietz—a retired, single man who lived a meager, reclusive life in rural Saranac, Michigan but who had amassed a nearly one-half million dollar retirement savings account.” The two defendants’ cases were severed, and before Ouedraogo’s trial in March 2011, prosecutors dropped the financial institution fraud and identity theft charges. Ouedraogo was tried first; Saba’s trial took place in May-June 2011. “Although there was no dispute that Dietz was dead, no body had been found, and there was no crime scene, no murder weapon or direct evidence linking Ouedraogo to Dietz’ disappearance or murder.  The government’s case was based purely on circumstantial evidence, most of which pointed to Saba, and very little of which implicated Ouedraogo.” The motions Ouedraogo entered asked for the guilty verdicts to be set aside or, alternatively for a new trial.

The decision states, “The standard for reviewing a request for judgment of acquittal, post trial, is well established: ‘the relevant question is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.’  Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979) (emphasis in original).” Neff notes that the court is precluded from substituting “its judgement for that of the jury” except to ensure that there is not “a miscarriage of justice.”

The decision continues, “Although there was fairly clear evidence linking Saba to Dietz and an attempt to impersonate Dietz and fraudulently drain his financial accounts in the days following his presumed death, the government’s case against Ouedraogo was based entirely on Ouedraogo’s friendship and association with Saba, primarily their telephone call records and travel in 2007, which the government alleged increased significantly from past years.  The record was devoid of evidence of any link between Ouedraogo and Dietz, either directly or indirectly through Saba.”

In a case where charges increased in a complicated manner, a jury eventually found Ouedraogo guilty of Conspiracy to Commit Financial Institution Fraud, Conspiracy to Commit Kidnapping, and Kidnapping Resulting in Death.

Noting that “The government proofs, however, were all about Saba,” Neff states, “Viewed in retrospect, the proofs at trial simply fall far short of establishing the key elements of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt,” also noting that “The conclusion that Dietz died as a result of a kidnapping by Saba and Ouedraogo on September 12 or 13, 2007, cannot be reached based on the evidence presented and reasonable inferences therefrom.  It requires instead a stretch of pure speculation, which is impermissible for a criminal conviction.”

After several point-by-point refutations of the government’s case, the decision concludes, “In light of the well-established legal standards for sufficiency of the evidence to sustain
a criminal conviction, Ouedraogo’s motion for judgment of acquittal must be granted. Likewise, in the alternative, the Court conditionally grants his motion for a new trial for the reasons stated, should the judgment of acquittal now rendered be later vacated or reversed.”