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United States v. Todaro

decided: September 3, 1971.


Forman, Aldisert and Gibbons, Circuit Judges.

Author: Forman


FORMAN, Circuit Judge.

Appellant, John Todaro, was tried by a jury and convicted in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey on an indictment charging violations on one count under 18 U.S.C. § 1951,*fn1 and on a second under 29 U.S.C. § 186.*fn2 Appellant was sentenced to two years' imprisonment on the first count and one year on the second, the terms to run consecutively, and was fined $1,000 on each count.

The act which formed the basis of the verdict of guilty was appellant's attempt between January and March 1970 to secure "* * * $500 now, a little in June and July, and something before Christmas" from Henry Vernwald, an employee of Nash Janitorial Services, Inc. (hereinafter Nash), a corporation of the State of Washington engaged in interstate commerce. The attempt followed shortly after an award to Nash of a Government contract for the cleaning of a federal building in Newark, New Jersey. At that time appellant, a business representative in the maintenance division of the Teamsters Union Local 97, was engaged in negotiations with Mr. Vernwald for the employment of members of his union. Fearing economic loss if he failed to comply with appellant's demand, Mr. Vernwald delayed shipments of supplies from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Principally, appellant challenges as prejudicial (1) a question asked by the District Judge on voir dire, (2) the presence of a copy of the indictment in the jury room during deliberations, and (3) the admission of the testimony of two witnesses. He assigns numerous additional errors which he claims deprived him of a fair trial. These were not objected to in the District Court, and are raised here for the first time.

The District Judge asked the jury on voir dire whether they could follow an instruction that a union official

"* * * may be guilty of a crime by merely demanding money from an employer, without any money changing hands." (Emphasis supplied.)

Appellant asserts that this question unfairly influenced the jury to his prejudice from the start.*fn3 In the context of the voir dire, where the District Judge had outlined the charges in the indictment shortly before asking this question, it amounted simply to a sounding of the jury's willingness to follow the provisions of the statutes. It was far from plain error and well within his discretion under Rule 24(a) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.*fn4

Likewise, the District Judge did not err in allowing the jurors to have a copy of the indictment with them during their deliberations. This is a matter within the discretion of the District Judge, subject to a limiting instruction that the indictment does not constitute evidence, but is an accusation only.*fn5 We have examined the charge of the District Judge and find that he properly instructed the jury on this point.

Nor did the District Judge err in allowing two witnesses to testify over appellant's objections on the grounds of unfair prejudice and irrelevancy. First, Walter Hawzen, whose company held the contract immediately before it was awarded to Nash, was permitted to testify that his losing bid reflected an hourly wage base submitted to him by appellant, who represented his employees. After Nash was awarded the contract, he observed that appellant had agreed to a lower hourly rate from Mr. Vernwald, and when he demanded to know appellant's reason for this "* * * he [appellant] told me that I was selfish and I wanted all the profits for myself." This conversation took place a few minutes before appellant's alleged attempt to obtain the money from Mr. Vernwald. Appellant challenges it as irrelevant.

Following an offer of proof, Ralph Tessitore was permitted to testify next that appellant had approached him, and demanded that the recently established janitorial services agency in which only he and his brother-in-law were involved join the Teamsters Union. He stated that appellant "* * * made it quite clear that he controlled the State of New Jersey" and that if Mr. Tessitore did not join, he "* * * might wake up some morning and find (his) trucks smashed and all (his) equipment ruined. Of course, in the old days, people's families were hurt." Appellant challenges this testimony as inflammatory and prejudicial. Mr. Tessitore went on to relate that appellant demanded an "initiation fee" of $50 to be paid to him at Christmas. This testimony is attacked as irrelevant. The entire conversation took place about two months after the alleged attempt to secure money from Mr. Vernwald.

We agree with the Government's contention that the testimony of both witnesses had probative value, and was neither unfairly prejudicial nor irrelevant. We have affirmed in several cases the principle that evidence of both prior and subsequent acts is admissible if:

"* * * stated in terms of the capacity of the evidence to prove some specific fact or issue such as intent, plan, scheme or design * * *. Evidence of other offenses may be received if relevant for any purpose other than to show a mere propensity or ...

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