(CN) — Ruling against a Texas man convicted for his leadership role in carrying out fraud and racketeering schemes that included the attempted murder of a Texas state judge, the Fifth Circuit held Wednesday that his own testimony placed him in the judge’s Austin neighborhood.
Cheimene Hamilton Onyeri is serving a life sentence after a federal jury found him guilty of all 17 counts of Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, violations – ranging from mail fraud and bribery of a public official to identity theft and attempted murder.
Trial evidence showed that Onyeri and his co-conspirators ran a criminal enterprise in Austin, Houston and Louisiana from 2011 to 2015 that converted debit card numbers skimmed from devices into cash, using the U.S. mail. Emboldened by their successes, Onyeri and company expanded their enterprise to include stealing identities and debit card fraud, until they were arrested.
But it didn’t end there.
Testimony at trial showed that the plot to murder Travis County Judge Julie H. Kocurek came about because Onyeri feared she would bring down his enterprise by sending him to prison on a probation violation at a hearing scheduled just two days after she was shot through the passenger side window of her car.
Kocurek was seriously injured but survived the November 2015 ambush outside her home, and has since returned to 390th District Court bench.
Onyeri appealed his conviction, but a three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit on Wednesday rejected his claims that officers lacked reasonable suspicion to pull him over and that the government failed to establish his guilt with sufficient evidence.
“The evidence at trial showed that Onyeri himself traveled to Judge Kocurek’s home to kill her and that he carried out this attempt,” U.S. Circuit Judge Edith Brown Clement, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote in the ruling.
Jurors not only heard evidence of this from the two men who traveled with Onyeri to the judge’s home the night of the assassination attempt, “but the jury also heard Onyeri’s own testimony that he was in Judge Kocurek’s neighborhood that night, placed the trash bag in front of her gate, waited for the judge and her family to return home, and was standing by her vehicle when the gun that he was holding ‘burst out,’” according to the opinion.
The appellate panel also found that an improper turn gave officers reasonable suspicion to conduct his traffic stop while on a manhunt for the judge’s attacker. There is no evidence to conclude that the officer’s testimony of the stop was not credible as Onyeri alleged on appeal, the panel found.
“It is eminently plausible that the traffic stop occurred just as Officer [Derek] Uresti explained; nothing in the record suggests otherwise. And the district court twice stated for our review that it found Officer Uresti credible,” the 15-page opinion states.
At Onyeri’s 2018 trial, Kocurek, who underwent 26 surgeries and lost a finger after the attack, testified that she felt “so damaged” she wanted to die. The shooting occurred with the judge’s teenage son in the car.
Appointed to the bench in 1999 by then-Governor George W. Bush, Kocurek, 56, switched parties in 2006 to become a Democrat.
Her attempted murder was featured in a 2019 episode of CBS News’ "48 Hours" and spurred the Texas Legislature to strengthen the security of courts and judges through the Judge Julie Kocurek Judicial and Courthouse Security Act of 2017. The law authorizes the Texas Department of Public Safety to provide security to a state judge who has been threatened or attacked.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.