By: Michael Bustamante | 6-12-24

LOS ANGELES – The legal team representing Dr. Mark Ridley-Thomas filed its Appellate Reply Brief with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals today, calling the government’s contorted theories untethered to federal precedent and laying the groundwork for Ridley-Thomas’ convictions to be reversed. The brief details how the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in its April 2024 Answering Brief, attempted to recast or even abandon the theories it alleged in Dr. Ridley-Thomas’ 19-count indictment and argued to the jury throughout the 12-day trial. Additionally, the defense strongly criticized the U.S. Attorney’s Office for its exclusion of Black women from Dr. Ridley-Thomas’ jury, including the government’s statement that it was “irrelevant” that Black women were excluded because other minorities were permitted to serve. 

Dr. Ridley-Thomas’ legal team, led by former Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Paul Watford, now a partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, and Alyssa Bell and Michael Schafler, partners with Cohen Williams LLP, forcefully argued that the Appellate Court must either reverse the convictions or grant Ridley Thomas a new trial. 

The Appellate Reply Brief elaborates on the ways the U.S. Attorney’s office (referenced in the brief as either ‘the government’ or ‘the prosecution’) has abandoned the legal theories upon which Dr. Ridley-Thomas’ convictions are predicated, as well as how Federal District Court Judge Dale S. Fischer misapplied the law, erred in instructing the jury, and erred in rulings during jury selection. The brief also details the many ways in which this compendium of errors inhibited Dr. Ridley-Thomas’ ability to obtain a fair trial and resulted in a miscarriage of justice. The brief makes the following key points:

1. Dr. Ridley-Thomas’ honest services fraud convictions must be reversed because they are predicated on a legally invalid bribery theory. 

During the 12-day trial, the government never argued–nor presented any evidence–that Dr. Ridley-Thomas solicited a cash bribe from USC, either for himself or his son. However, in the Government’s Answering Brief, prosecutors do a complete about-face. For the first time, it now contends that the quid upon which the jury’s verdict rests is not the so-called “funneling,” — a pejorative term mentioned not less than 66 times throughout the indictment, trial, and post-trial proceedings–but rather cash: a $100,000 payment of University funds to Sebastian’s non-profit (PRPI). Were those the facts, the Reply explains, this would be a different case. But those were not the facts. As the government itself argued at trial, the undisputed evidence shows USC Dean Flynn donated Dr. Ridley-Thomas’ own funds – not USC’s – to PRPI. 

“From indictment to summation, the government argued that Dr. Ridley-Thomas exchanged what prosecutors coined, ‘funneling,’ a term with a negative connotation that the government used 66 times, for a vote in favor of a Los Angeles County contract,” stated Alyssa Bell, partner at Cohen & Williams, LLP. “On appeal, the government’s response is a telling about-face and amounts to a concession that Dr. Ridley-Thomas’ convictions are invalid as a matter of law and must be reversed.” 

2. Dr. Ridley-Thomas’ federal-programs bribery conviction is predicated upon a legally invalid theory and must be reversed. 

The government argued loudly and repeatedly for Dr. Ridley-Thomas’ conviction on the theory that he “monetized” his public service by accepting a “reward” for official action that he was determined to take. This argument was put forward in spite of the fact that Dr. Ridley-

Thomas’ $100,000 contribution from his campaign fund to USC fully complied with state law. Jurors should have been made aware that lobbying, in this case by USC Dean Flynn to Dr. Ridley-Thomas, even if viewed negatively by the general public, is legal from the standpoint of federal law. 

“Judge Fischer’s instructions to the jury failed to distinguish between ‘corruption’ and ‘an elected official responding to legitimate lobbying’,” added Bell. “Because Dr. Ridley-Thomas’ conduct complied fully with state law, as the evidence at trial established, the jury needed to be told specifically that he had not committed bribery if his intent was limited to the cultivation of business or political friendship.” 

3. The prosecution’s discriminatory strike of all Black women jurors denied Dr. Ridley Thomas a fair trial. 

Dr. Ridley-Thomas’ legal team argues that, during jury selection, the government used two of its preemptory challenges in a discriminatory manner to purposefully exclude two Black women from the jury – a Batson challenge. As stated in Batson v. Kentucky, “[p]urposeful racial discrimination in selection of the jury panel violates a defendant’s right to equal protection because it denies the protection that a trial by jury is intended to secure.”

As stated in the brief, “[f]ederal precedent makes clear that Black women face ‘unique discrimination’ because of their ‘race and gender’ and this Court has acknowledged numerous times, including as recently as 2002, that the importance of protecting intersectional groups as a separate class.” 

“It is shocking that the government claims in its Answering Brief that it is ‘irrelevant’ whether Black women constitute a ‘cognizable group’ under Batson because Dr. Ridley-Thomas’ jury included Black men and other minority jurors,” stated Michael Schafler, partner, Cohen & Williams. “Black women have long been stereotyped as more likely to engage in jury nullification and have therefore faced disproportionate preemptory strikes from potential jury panels. The government’s decision to dismiss two Black female jurors, and then minimize the impact of this biased decision, is deeply troublesome.” 

“The Ninth Circuit has yet to recognize an intersectional race-and-gender class for Batson purposes. Other courts have already done so. It’s beyond time that the 9th Circuit follow suit,” concluded Schafler.