Instead of hearing closing arguments Friday, the jury in the federal fraud trial of State Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) was sent home for the long Presidents Day weekend after listening for nearly an hour to the judge’s law clerk read more than 30 separate instructions about how to decide the case.
The fourth week of court proceedings was supposed to end Friday with closing arguments, but Senior U.S. District Judge David Ezra, prosecutors, and defense attorneys needed additional time to hash out jury instructions in the case involving alleged wire fraud, securities fraud, and money laundering connected with defunct fracking sand company FourWinds Logistics.
The task of formulating jury instructions proved to be like everything else in the case – complex and protracted.
“These are very complicated issues, and I don’t want to risk a month of jury trial by putting out an erroneous jury instruction,” Ezra told the court earlier, outside the jury’s presence. Noting that he had been studying law related to the current case late into Thursday night, Ezra said he had not encountered such intricate jury instructions in 20 years.
Speaking to the jury, he explained that both prosecutors and defense attorneys have the right to submit proposed jury instructions, which he then drafts. “This process can take a little longer when the law is not crystal clear.”
The instructions tell the jury how to decide the case, how the law applies to the specific case, how much weight to give witness testimony and other evidence, and how to determine whether the burden of proof has been met. Terms relevant to the case are defined.
Uresti is charged with 11 felony counts of securities fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering stemming from his involvement with FourWinds, which fell into bankruptcy in 2015. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, but did not testify in his own defense. The senator, who has represented District 19 since 2006 and has served in the Legislature for two decades, was the company’s legal counsel and recruited investors for the company, which prosecutors allege operated as a Ponzi scheme. He also held a 1 percent stake in the company.
The government’s key witness against Uresti was a former legal client, Denise Cantu, whom Uresti represented in a wrongful death lawsuit relating to an auto accident that killed her son and daughter. Uresti recommended that she invest some of the settlement proceeds in Four Winds. Cantu lost $800,000 of her $900,000 investment.
Uresti’s co-defendant, Gary Cain, faces nine felony counts in connection with his role working as a consultant for FourWinds.
Should either defendant be convicted, jury instructions could form the basis of an appeal if they are found to be inaccurate, incorrect, or otherwise faulty. Such instructions provide the framework for the jury to think about the evidence and whether the government has proven its case, said defense attorney Michael McCrum, who represents Uresti.
“It’s a trail, and it instructs the jury how to walk down the path” of the case, McCrum said. “If it’s not stated correctly, the jury takes a wrong turn and the system fails. You can have a great trial, but if a jury was mis-instructed you have to go back to the drawing board.”
Defense attorneys generally work to ensure that the instructions state the law in a way that is most favorable to their client, while prosecutors may aim to limit what the government has to prove in order for the jury to convict.
Jury instructions are important because they shouldn’t make it easier for the government to convict someone, McCrum said.
Uresti faces one count of acting as an unregistered securities broker, a charge McCrum said is rarely brought, making it difficult to instruct a jury on how to decide that count. “There’s not a lot of law there on what the jury instructions should be,” he said, likening making instructions on that count to “flying blind.”