The public may be fascinated with the murder case against Andrea Sneiderman because it centers on an alleged love triangle, but lawyers observing the case are intrigued by something else — racketeering charges.
By accusing Sneiderman of violating the RICO law, or Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, DeKalb County prosecutors have been able to seize more than $2 million in life insurance money paid to her after her husband, Rusty Sneiderman, was killed by Hemy Neuman outside a Dunwoody day care center on Nov. 18, 2010.
Taking that money could hamper Andrea Sneiderman’s ability to pay her defense lawyers and lead to a challenge that she’s being denied her rights, said two lawyers experienced in criminal matters.
Criminal defense lawyers also added that the RICO charges have other benefits for the prosecution. RICO charges are easier to prove than murder, and they give prosecutors a wide latitude to explore a host of Sneiderman’s actions that could be related to her husband’s murder.
“It gives the prosecutor a sort of larger sledgehammer to wield,” said William Morrison, a lawyer who has tried numerous RICO cases involving gangs and white-collar crime. “You can throw in the kitchen sink with a RICO indictment. Everything is intertwined.”
The prosecution will attempt to use the RICO charge to show that Sneiderman and Neuman, her former boss at GE Energy, conspired together in the murder plot, according to the Aug. 2 indictment against her. In March a jury found Neuman guilty but mentally ill, and he’s serving a life sentence. (On Tuesday, DeKalb Superior Court Judge Gregory Adams released Sneiderman from jail on $500,000 bond, restricting her movements to her parents’ house, medical appointments and meetings with her lawyers.)
Applying the RICO law in these circumstances is unusual, said Kenneth Hodges III, an Atlanta lawyer and former Dougherty Judicial Circuit district attorney.
“I’ve never heard of the seizure of insurance proceeds in a murder case … where an insurance company had made a payment to the beneficiary and then the DA’s office came in afterward,” said Hodges, of Ashe, Rafuse & Hill. “If the freezing of the assets inhibits or hinders in any way Ms. Sneiderman’s ability to retain counsel, to defend herself from the indictment, she could and should make due process claims.”
Defense attorney Donald Samuel said prosecutors followed the money and grabbed the life insurance cash to prevent Sneiderman from spending it or hiding it while she awaits trial.
“They’re bringing RICO to tie up her assets. It raises all kinds of due process concerns,” said Samuel, of Garland, Samuel & Loeb. “RICO is extraordinarily expansive in Georgia. RICO taken to its limits could be used in almost a limitless number of crimes.”
Samuel was involved in a prominent example of a case in which RICO charges accompanied murder accusations. He defended former DeKalb County Sheriff Sidney Dorsey against charges that Dorsey ordered the death of Derwin Brown, who had defeated Dorsey in the 2000 election. Dorsey — prosecuted by then-DeKalb District Attorney J. Tom Morgan, who is now Sneiderman’s lawyer — was convicted, and the Georgia Supreme Court upheld his conviction and the use of RICO charges in the case.
Both the office of DeKalb DA Robert James Jr. and Sneiderman’s defense team, led by Morgan, declined to comment. On the stand during Neuman’s trial, Sneiderman denied having an affair with him, and her lawyers have proclaimed her innocence.
Although Sneiderman won’t be able to use the life insurance money for her defense, she may have other assets at her disposal. The Aug. 8 civil forfeiture complaint lists $2,275,779 that was seized from four of Sneiderman’s accounts held at the Bank of New York Mellon, but it also notes that the Sneidermans had nearly $1 million saved in joint accounts or accounts only in Rusty Sneiderman’s name at the time of his death.
Besides the money, the RICO charge will help prosecutors build toward proving malice murder and attempted murder charges, said attorney B.J. Bernstein. The eight-count indictment also includes accusations of insurance fraud, making false statements and perjury.
According to O.C.G.A. § 16-14-3, to prove a RICO offense has been committed, prosecutors need only to show that the accused has engaged in at least two acts toward a criminal goal — in this case, Rusty Sneiderman’s murder. The indictment against Andrea Sneiderman lists 55 alleged overt acts by her and Neuman, including providing him with Rusty Sneiderman’s schedule and misleading police about the nature of their relationship.
“It’s potentially easier to convict someone under RICO because you only have to show they committed predicate acts. … If something’s missing, a jury can still convict you,” Bernstein said. “RICO makes you accept that she was involved for the sake of insurance money, rather than being involved for the sake of having an affair with this man and wanting to spend her life with him by getting her husband out of the way.”
At Sneiderman’s trial, jurors will be able to examine the indictment and the step-by-step accusations of how the pair planned the killing, said Morrison, of Jones Morrison & Womack. “They will have a roadmap as to what the DA’s theory is,” he said.
Many of the racketeering accusations in the indictment point to circumstantial evidence. For example, it says in the weeks before the murder, Sneiderman urged her husband to call 911 to report that their garage door had mysteriously been raised, apparently to create a record of suspicious activity near their home.
The indictment says the day after the shooting, she gave Neuman the user name and password for her laptop, and he logged on that day. She later told friends she suspected Neuman killed her husband, but she didn’t share that information with police, the indictment says.
She also testified at Neuman’s trial that she didn’t know what happened to her husband until she reached the hospital, the indictment says. But the forfeiture complaint says she called a friend, a co-worker and her father-in-law before she arrived at the hospital to tell them her husband had been shot.
Even if only a few of these claims are proven beyond a reasonable doubt, prosecutors could still win a RICO verdict without a murder conviction, said University of Georgia law professor Ronald Carlson. Prosecutors are seeking life without parole on the murder charge, and the RICO count comes with a 20-year maximum sentence.
“Often the RICO charge is brought into the picture to help ensure that a conviction of some kind will result from the trial,” Carlson said. “Most prosecutors see a path to conviction a little more accessible under RICO than a circumstantial murder case.”
But other lawyers disagreed, saying a murder conviction would go hand-in-hand with a RICO verdict.
“Why would a jury find you not guilty of murder but guilty of RICO of committing the murder? Juries do weird things sometimes, but that’s completely illogical,” said Samuel.
Michael Lambros, who has handled RICO forfeiture actions for district attorneys across the state, also said it’s unlikely that a jury would only find guilt on one of the offenses.
“If you lose on murder, you’re going to lose on RICO because there are predicate acts you’ve got to show,” Lambros said.
District attorneys have expanded their use of state RICO statutes in the last decade as they’ve learned how much of an impression it can make on juries, said Jerome Froelich Jr. of McKenney & Froelich.
Detailed racketeering charges give jurors an outline of the case they can follow, and prosecutors can use it to expand the type of evidence that can be presented at trial because the scope of RICO is so far-reaching, Froelich said.
“RICO scares juries. They don’t understand that it’s so broad that it could be anything,” said Froelich, who handles mostly federal defense work. “One of the arguments I would make to the jury and the judge is that the state has overreached here. They’re trying to make this scarier than it really is by throwing racketeering into it.”
The criminal case is State v. Sneiderman, 12CR4394. The forfeiture action is State v. Bank of New York Mellon, 12CV9394.