Three weeks ago, a trial team of the Federal Defender Program won an acquittal in the office’s first COVID-era jury trial. The win is worth celebrating for many reasons, not the least of which is this: Vionnette Reyes Johnson has won the final trial of her career. She will soon retire after 26 years fighting the good fight at the FDP. This acquittal is a fitting coda on a marvelous career: Vionnette also won her very first federal jury trial many years ago. As we all know, Vionnette’s maiden name, Reyes, means “kings” in Spanish, and she’ll forever be FDP royalty.
Now, what about that acquittal? Aurelio Penaloza-Bravo was charged with a conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, a substantive methamphetamine count, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense. The case started with the controlled delivery of a FedEx package. Inside the package were three lava lamps filled with liquid methamphetamine. And inside the house was Mr. Penaloza and at least one other person. The defense argued that Mr. Penaloza was merely present, and did not himself possess or traffic in the drugs. A pivotal point in the trial: A law enforcement officer testified that he entered the house through the carport door and saw Mr. Penaloza coming down a set of stairs. But during the defense’s case in chief, the owner of the house testified that the so-called carport door did not exist. The investigation in the case paid off—without going to the house the team would not have known that there was no carport door.
Based on the owner’s testimony, the defense argued that officer’s entire testimony was unreliable and, without body cameras or photographs to corroborate the cop’s version of the events, the jury didn’t buy it. The jury returned a not guilty verdict on all counts. Judge Mark H. Cohen released Mr. Penaloza after more than two years in pretrial custody.
The FDP trial team included Vionnette, of course, but also Tiffany Bracewell (brilliant lawyer and teammate who just finished an FDP fellowship and returned to life as an associate at Troutman Pepper), Melissa Florkowski (beloved paralegal who is off to graduate school), and Cate Ladue (investigator-extraordinaire).