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United States v. Truitt

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

September 12, 2019

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Cathy Nicole Truitt, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued February 21, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 14 CR 718 - John Z. Lee, Judge.

          Before Easterbrook, Sykes, and Barrett, Circuit Judges.

          SYKES, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         In late 2009 Cathy Truirt filed seven nearly identical tax returns, each falsely claiming that she was entitled to a $300, 000 refund. The IRS identified six of the seven as fraudulent, but for unknown reasons it approved one and sent her a check for the full amount. Within weeks the IRS recognized the error and demanded that she return the funds. She did not respond. Instead, she spent the money on jewelry, a condominium, tickets to sporting events, and a business investment. The IRS launched an investigation, and eventually she was indicted for making false claims against the United States in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 287 and theft of government funds in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 641. A jury found her guilty as charged.

         Truirt's appeal is limited to a single issue. She challenges the exclusion of her expert witness, psychologist Dr. Michael Fogel, who proposed to testify that Truirt was a member of a "charismatic group" -a cult-like organization that indoctrinates its members. Truirt intended to offer this testimony to bolster an argument that she lacked the requisite mens rea for the crimes. The district judge excluded the testimony under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993), and Rules 702 and 704(b) of the Federal Rules of Evidence.

         That ruling was sound. The judge reasonably concluded that Dr. Fogel lacked the relevant expertise and his methods were not reliable. We affirm the judgment.

         I. Background

         In March 2009 Truitt joined the Moorish Science Temple of America, which views itself as a sovereign "ecclesiastical government." The Moorish Temple teaches that neither the states nor the federal government have any authority over its members, who instead purport to hold something akin to diplomatic immunity. Before initiation into the Temple, members fill out a series of forms designed to put the government on notice of their new nationality. After a ceremony, the Temple provides members with Moorish identification cards, license plates, and other documents backing up their purported change in citizenship.

         Truitt quickly became an active member of a Moorish temple on Chicago's west side. The group was small-at most about 25 members-and Truitt spent as many as 40 hours a week on church-related activities. She also developed a close relationship with the local leader, Queen Akefe Muzari El ("Queen"). Three months after Truitt joined, Queen told her congregants that the Temple's founding prophet had established a trust funded by the United States government and designed to benefit Moorish nationals. To prepare her members to collect funds from the trust, Queen led them through a variety of rituals and ceremonies. She then instructed them to use symbolic numbers to claim a refund on a series of IRS Form 1041s-the tax return used by trusts and estates. Some of the numbers were provided by a church elder; others came from numerology. Queen told Truitt and other Moors that if the government sent them money in response to the tax returns, they were to tithe 25% back to the Temple. Queen also warned her followers to expect "pushback" from the government-attempts to block the Moors from collecting despite their legitimate entitlement. This resistance, Queen said, signified nothing about the legitimacy of their right to payment. She instructed them to refile the 1041 forms if they received a frivolous-filing notice.

         In August 2009 Truitt filed three identical 1041 forms for the years 2006, 2007, and 2008. Each one claimed entitlement to a refund because an excess of $304, 204.30 in taxes had been withheld from the income of a trust in her name. In truth, there was no trust and no taxes were withheld at all.

         As Queen predicted, the IRS pushed back. It sent Truitt letters informing her that each of the three 1041 forms was frivolous. In the back-and-forth that followed, Truitt filed four more identical 1041 forms, while the IRS responded with more notifications that the forms were meaningless. But in the midst of this flurry of filings and responses, on January 5, 2010, the IRS issued a refund check for the full $304, 204.30 refund Truitt claimed for one of the tax years. On January 19 she opened a Post Office Box in the name of "Maji Atarah El," and the next day she deposited the Treasury check into a new account at Wachovia Bank in the name of the "Maji Atarah El Trust." She listed the Post Office Box as the account holder's address.

         The IRS noticed the error almost immediately, and within five weeks Truitt received notice that she was required to return the money. She instead rapidly depleted the funds. By this time she was less involved with the Temple, and Queen excommunicated her for lack of attendance. So rather than tithe 25% of the sum back to the Temple, Truitt gave roughly $75, 000 of her refund to several Moors she was still in touch with. She then placed $200, 000 in several accounts in her father's name. Those funds quickly disappeared. They paid for, among other things, jewelry, a down payment on a Michigan Avenue condominium, Chicago White Sox and Bulls tickets, and an investment in a diamond business. Notably, almost all of this activity occurred after the IRS notified her of the mistake. By April 2010 the Wachovia account held only about $200.

         Throughout this period the IRS continued to send Truitt notices that it had mistakenly sent the refund check. When two agents later visited her Michigan Avenue home, she refused to acknowledge herself by name. When they ...


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