The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacated the wire fraud conviction of a former Capitol Hill staffer on Friday, in a ruling that addresses when a defendant can erase convictions after reaching a plea deal with prosecutors.
Russell Caso Jr.'s case starts at an unusual place. He is innocent of the crime for which he was charged and convicted, and the government does not dispute the point. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2010 in Skilling v. U.S. narrowed the scope of honest services wire fraud charges to require bribery or kickbacks—elements not present in the charged conduct against Caso.
Federal prosecutors didn't want Caso, formerly chief of staff to former Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), to simply walk away unscathed after the high court ruling. They argued he had a burden to prove his actual innocence not only to the honest services but to other potential charges the prosecutors had discussed—such as making a false statement on a financial disclosure form—but never actually charged.
The D.C. Circuit rejected that idea today, ruling that a defendant need only to prove actual innocence to the offense of his conviction, as well as any "more serious" crimes (as defined by federal sentencing guidelines) that might be waiting in the wings in the course of plea bargaining.
"In sum, by any relevant measure, the government did not forgo a more serious charge when it charged Caso with conspiring to commit honest-services wire fraud," Chief Judge Merrick Garland wrote.
Because Caso is not required to show his actual innocence of a separate and uncharged offense with a lower sentencing range, the trial judge's order denying his motion to vacate his conviction and sentence was reversed.
Then-Chief U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth had refused to vacate Caso's conviction and sentence. The evidence in the case against Caso, the judge said in his ruling in January, "conclusively determine his guilt" on the never-filed false statements charge.
An assistant federal public defender, Elizabeth Oyer, argued for Caso in the D.C. Circuit. Assistant U.S. Attorney Lauren Bates argued for the government. Mayer Brown associate Scott Noveck was involved in the case, and Oyer briefed the case while she was still at that firm.
Garland heard the case with judges Judith Rogers and Thomas Griffith.