(NEW YORK) — Celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti deserves to have his conviction overturned because the trial erroneously instructed the jury about the professional duties of lawyers, Avenatti’s lawyer argued Friday to a federal appeals court.
Avenatti was convicted of aggravated identity theft and is serving prison time for defrauding his best-known client, adult film actress Stormy Daniels, out of the proceeds of her book contract.
On appeal, his defense argued the trial judge added inappropriate and prejudicial instructions to the jury about the seriousness of Avenatti’s crime because it represented a breach of a lawyer’s ethical duties.
“Anytime a judge adds a qualifier is particularly problematic,” defense attorney Kendra Hutchinson said Friday during an oral argument before a three-judge panel of the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals. “I think this charge should not have been given.”
One of the appellate judges questioned whether the jury charge was really inappropriate, given Avenatti’s professional responsibilities.
“Mr. Avenatti is a lawyer licensed to practice in California,” Judge Steven Menashi said. “So he has been trained in these rules.”
The same judge, however, also questioned whether the trial judge’s remarks gave the jury the wrong impression.
“If you are getting a pretty lengthy speech about lawyers’ duties and a statement about what a particularly serious violation of those duties is and that is relevant to count one then that is inviting the jury to make a decision on count one on the basis of whether Avenatti violated his ethical duties,” Menashi said.
Federal prosecutors argued the trial judge’s actions were proper.
“The judgment of conviction should be affirmed in this case,” prosecutor Matthew Podolsky said. “I don’t see any argument that the charge on the duties wasn’t accurate.”
Avenatti was convicted of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft for stealing from Daniels about $300,000 she was supposed to receive in connection with a book contract.
“Avenatti stole from his client. He did so to support his own business and fund his own lifestyle. He did so despite presenting himself to the world as his client’s champion and defender and despite using that feigned credibility to secure fame and pursue political influence,” prosecutors said.
The judge allowed Avenatti to serve about half of his sentence at the same time he serves prison time for extorting Nike. He will spend an extra two and a half years in prison for stealing from Daniels.
The judge said the sentence reflected the “abuse of trust” Avenatti demonstrated and a belief he could get away with it because people would believe him over Daniels due to her “unorthodox ” career as an adult film actress.
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