GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - A man convicted in a high profile criminal case is now free after a federal judge threw out the conviction.
U.S. District Court Judge Janet Neff issued her opinion Wednesday. The 36-page ruling explains why Neff threw out convictions against Raogo Ouedraogo.
Ouedraogo and Rami Saba were both accused of playing a part in the disappearance and presumed death of Donald Dietz in 2007.
Dietz, 66 at the time he disappeared, better known as The Bicycle Man, disappeared from his Saranac home in September 2007. Court documents describe Dietz as a man who was unmarried, never had a girlfriend and was a "recluse even to his own family."
Prosecutors said Saba and Ouedraogo both conspired to kidnap and kill Dietz, then steal nearly half a million dollars Dietz had in a retirement account.
Rami Saba was found guilty in June 2011 of 11 federal charges, including conspiracy to commit kidnapping. He was sentenced in September to more than 32 years behind bars.
Ouedraogo was convicted in March of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, and kidnapping resulting in death. But Neff's opinion, which threw out the jury's guilty verdict, changes all of that.
"I imagine the people at the U.S. attorney's office are quite surprised, too. It really is extremely unusual," said Cooley Law School Professor Curt Benson.
Benson said it is rare to see a ruling like this one.
"The U.S. Attorney gets to choose which cases to bring, and they only bring cases where they have sufficient evidence to warrant a conviction," said Benson. "It's so uncommon for a prosecution to find itself in a situation where a judge actually believes the evidence is so lacking as to result in a summary judgment."
In the decision, Judge Neff called the prosecution's case an "ever-evolving conspiracy theory." She referred to the evidence as "lacking" and points out that "despite some four weeks of trial, it remains a case in which there is no body, no weapon, no crime scene, no confession, and no physical evidence of a homicide or any other crime."
She wrote that the evidence doesn't prove Ouedraogo is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
"She's essentially saying, 'It's not that it's a circumstantial case. We have plenty of circumstantial cases, [there's] nothing wrong with circumstantial evidence.' But what she's saying is, 'This is an inference based upon an inference based upon an inference,' and at some point the evidence simply becomes so remote... At some point it becomes speculation," said Benson.
Judge Neff's decision also said that in the event her decision to overturn the guilty verdict is overruled by an appeals court, she thinks that Ouedraogo should get a new trial.
Following Neff's decision, Ouedraogo was released from custody.
Ouedraogo will remain free while federal prosecutors appeal. However, he cannot possess or obtain a passport, he must remain in the US, and he must check in weekly with the US Probation Office in Philadelphia, where he lives.
"Yeah, he's acquitted. He's acquitted," said Benson. "To the extent that the judge says by law you're not guilty, then one minute in jail is a deprivation of his rights. So it's not surprising that he was sprung immediately."
24 Hour News 8 spoke with Ouedraogo's defense attorney Larry Willey about the developments. Willey said even in the face of a conviction, neither his client, or the rest of the defense team ever gave up hope.
"You don't know what's going to happen, so there's always anxiety and feeling of uncertainty, but I don't think anybody gave up hope, because you kind of think that if you are right then it will happen," said Willey.
He said Ouedraogo has been behind bars since 2009. He was released from jail in Newaygo Wednesday evening.
"I think the only thing [Ouedraogo's] really thinking about right now is to go home and see his kids and wife for Christmas," said Willey.
The U.S. Attorney's office filed a motion to try to get Ouedraogo back behind bars until an appeals court rules if the judge's decision will stand.
"We are pursuing an appeal to the 6th Circuit," said Kaye Hooker of the US Attorney's office. "United States Attorney Donald Davis and all the members of the trial team feel very badly for the Dietz family."
Willey said he doesn't think his client will have to go back to jail. He said he didn't think he or his client would object to reasonable restrictions on Ouedraogo's release.
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