U.S. Supreme Court sends back South Thomaston man's conviction for review
Washington D.C. — The United States Supreme Court has vacated the conviction of a South Thomaston man who spent five months in prison for health care fraud on the grounds a word was interpreted incorrectly.
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 was ordered to serve five months in prison and three years on supervised released, according to court documents.
The conviction was affirmed by the court of appeals, but with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision, the case is now remanded to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston for review.
Russell's attorney, William Maddox of Rockland said the case is still alive, and will be sent back to a three-judge panel that may ask for supplemental briefing on the case.
The case is remanded back to the appeals court because of a mistake in the 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.
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, said 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.
Maddox explained that if the conviction was not vacated, two other decisions could have made by the U.S. Supreme Court, including the motion would be granted, but the parties would argue the case before the justices, or, the appeal would have been denied altogether.
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.
Maddox said he feels great about the decision and said he knew he and his client had a good chance at winning the argument after reviewing the prosecutor's brief, where they conceded the word willingly had been misinterpreted.
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.
A message for Assistant United States Attorney Joel B. Casey has not been immediately returned.
Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 207-594-4401, ext. 118, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.