(CN) - The 9th Circuit on Thursday affirmed the extortion and racketeering convictions of a former truck driver who blackmailed casino clients for $250,000 in cash and an extra $100,000 to play in the World Series of Poker.
During the course of a typical workday in March 2007, Jeffrey Greer had found approximately 50 pounds of documents containing the client and financial information of Las Vegas casinos Harrah's Entertainment and MGM/Mirage.
Greer had just dropped off a load of paper at a recycling plant in Alabama, and the sensitive documents were left on the floor of his trailer. The documents included "clients' social security numbers, account numbers, betting limits, and betting habits," according to the ruling.
On the verge of retirement, Greer tried to convince Harrah's to give him a security-consultant contract in exchange for information on how he got the documents. Greer threatened to make the documents public if the casino refused. When the casino balked, Greer put the documents on eBay under the caption "A Large Gaming Company's Family Jewels." The item listing included a graphic of a "hand grasping a pair of animal testicles," the ruling states.
Harrah's, which began working with the FBI soon after Greer contacted its security officials, convinced Greer to meet and reveal where he got the documents. In exchange, the casino promised to meet his demand for a $250,000 security-consulting fee and a $100,000 stipend to play in the World Series of Poker. Greer had also contacted the MGM/Mirage with similar demands, according to the complaint.
The FBI arrested Greer as soon as he accepted the check. A jury subsequently convicted him for extortion and racketeering.
On appeal, Greer argued that the convictions should be tossed because the District Court gave the jury conflicting instructions that "eliminated a mental state requirement for conviction," according to the complaint. He also claimed that prosecutors had improperly asked him during cross-examination if he thought witnesses in the trial had been truthful.
A three-judge appellate panel in San Francisco upheld the convictions in a 2-1 decision Thursday, finding that the District Court had not committed a plain error in the case.
"The District Court properly instructed the jury that '[a]n act is done knowingly if the defendant is aware of the act and does not act through ignorance, mistake, or accident," Judge Jay Bybee wrote for the court. "The government is not required to prove that the defendant knew that his actions were unlawful.' Because knowing that one is not entitled to receive property does not mean that one thereby knows of unlawful activity, an instruction addressing only the latter type of knowledge cannot modify an instruction addressing the former."
Bybee added that "the extortion statute does not require knowledge of unlawful activity; though in cases of economic extortion it may require that the defendant know he was not legally entitled to the property he tried to obtain, knowledge of legal entitlement to property is not the same as knowledge of unlawful activity."
Greer also failed to convince the panel that prosecutors employed improper questioning.
"Although we have repeatedly stated that a prosecutor may not ask the defendant to comment on the veracity of another witness, we have found improper prosecutorial questioning in only one particular context: when the prosecutor specifically asked the defendant whether another witness was lying," Bybee wrote (emphasis in original). "At least three circuits, however, have held that merely asking the defendant whether another witness was 'mistaken' or 'wrong' rather than 'lying' is proper because of the significant distinction between these formulations."
Writing in dissent, U.S. District Judge Owen Panner, sitting on the panel by designation from the District of Oregon, argued that Greer's convictions should be reversed. "[The] jury's request during deliberations for examples of 'wrongful use of fear of economic harm' and for a supplemental instruction on 'wrongful' suggests some confusion as to the mental element required for conviction," Panner wrote.
"This is not a case where the error can be ignored because of overwhelming evidence of guilt," he added. "Rather, the jury could have reasonably found that Greer did not know the unlawfulness of his actions."
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