South Thomaston man has two convictions nixed by appeals court

By Juliette Laaka | May 21, 2014
Photo by: uscourts.gov

Boston — A South Thomaston man's healthcare fraud conviction was partially vacated May 20 by a federal appeals court following a United States Supreme Court decision to send the case back to the lower court for review.

Rodney L. Russell, 50, was convicted in 2011 of lying about his income when he applied for state funded health care, and received more than $15,000 in benefits. Russell served five months in prison and three years on supervised release, according to court documents.

Russell was indicted in 2010 on six counts of making a false statement when applying for healthcare, but was only convicted of four counts.

His conviction was affirmed by the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, but with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in April, the case was remanded to the appeals court for additional review.

The case was remanded back to the appeals court because of a mistake in jury instructions from 2010. The jury should have been instructed that the prosecution was required to prove Russell knew the statements about his income were false, but that he also knew falsifying information was illegal. The prosecution interpreted the statute as requiring proof only that the defendant knew the statements were false, according to court documents.

Two convictions of making a false statement were vacated, but two remaining convictions of making a false statement were affirmed. Russell's attorney, William Maddox of Rockland, said the court upheld two convictions as they concluded there was harmless error, meaning there is an admittance of an error, but that it did not impact the case.

A second petition will be put before the U.S. Supreme Court to determine if the error was indeed harmless in the remaining two convictions against Russell, Maddox said.

At the center of the debate is how the word "willfully" is interpreted, and whether it requires proof that Russell knew that what he was doing was illegal. Maddox argued willfully requires proof the defendant knew his false statement was unlawful, according to court papers. The prosecution admits it interpreted the word incorrectly in this case, according to the brief written in March for the Supreme Court by Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr.

Verrilli argued, however, that further review is unwarranted in this case because any error in the district court's instructions was harmless. Verrilli contends it is clear Russell knew he was acting unlawfully because he signed certification acknowledging it was crime to provide misleading statements about his income when applying for benefits.

Russell has already served time for the fraud conviction, and although it has been vacated by the nation's highest court, it is not yet clear what recourse, if any, Russell is entitled to.

In a separate case, Russell was convicted in January of drug-related crimes and harboring an illegal alien stemming from his involvement in running a marijuana farm in Penobscot County that was raided in 2009. Russell has not yet been sentenced for those crimes, but is facing a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years, said Maddox April 21.

U.S. Marshals arrested Russell and co-defendants Malcolm A. French, Robert Berg, and Kendall Chase in that case in September 2009.

Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 207-594-4401, ext. 118, or via email at jlaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com.

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Juliette Laaka
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Juliette primarily covers the cops and courts beat for The Courier-Gazette.

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