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Second Circuit Rejects Coin Dealer’s Coram Nobis Petition

Robert du Purton was convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in 2001 for participating in an “elaborate scheme of fraudulent representations” in his rare coin business.  According to trial evidence, du Purton lied to customers about the sources of coins, concocted phony auctions to drive up prices, and had his employees impersonate competitors or independent sources, among other things.  His conviction was affirmed on direct appeal.  Nearly fifteen years later, he brought a petition for writ of error coram nobis, claiming that the government presented false expert testimony at trial.  In a per curiam decision, the Second Circuit (Katzman, Leval, Andrew Carter, District Judge) affirmed the denial of the petition.

At trial, the government introduced into evidence 702 coins that du Purton offered for sale, and put forward an expert witness, Anthony Swiatek, to testify to the grade and value of the coins based on widely-used pricing guides.  After the conviction, the government asked Swiatek to value the over 26,000 coins that had been confiscated from du Purton, with the eventual goal of selling the coins to satisfy du Purton’s restitution obligations.  Swiatek gave a “ballpark” estimate of $430,000-$460,000.  But when the government finally did auction the coins, nearly 10 nearly ten years later, they brought in four times that amount, over $1.8 million.  du Purton argued that this discrepancy demonstrated that Swiatek had undervalued the 702 coins introduced into evidence at his trial.

As the Court describes, the modern coram nobis petition can be used to redress fundamental factual errors leading to convictions, but is still limited to “extraordinary cases” where no other remedy, including habeas corpus, is available.  In United States v. Keogh, 391 F.3d 138 (2d Cir. 1986), for example, the Court granted a coram nobis petition where the prosecution withheld highly material evidence that “compels the invalidation of the conviction,” even where no prosecutorial misconduct occurred.  In Foont v. United States, 93 F.3d 76 (2d Cir. 1996),  though, the Circuit clarified that “[c]laims of new evidence . . . without constitutional or jurisdictional error in the underlying proceeding, cannot support a coram nobis claim.”

Here, the Court held, the expert Swiatek’s apparently low valuation of the confiscated coins was insufficient to show that his trial testimony “was inaccurate or misleading.”  The estimate of the confiscated coins’ value was distinct from Swiatek’s testimony about the coins in evidence at trial, and the discrepancy could be explained by the years that passed between Swiatek’s valuation and the government auction.  And, the Court noted, “the strength of the evidence of du Purton’s broad fraudulent activity in support of his sale of coins” meant that even an error in the valuation methodology would not be enough to warrant the extraordinary relief of granting a coram nobis petition.

Since the 1996 enactment of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), it has become increasingly difficult for defendants to obtain habeas corpus relief, or even review, of alleged errors at trial.  Given this limitation on habeas review, it is understandable that defense attorneys (and even district judges) would look to other avenues, such as a writ of coram nobis, to secure justice.  However, the Court of Appeals seems inclined to limit the use of this writ to a narrow category of cases that does not include the facts presented by this appeal.

-By Stephanie Teplin and Harry Sandick