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Fifth Circuit Allows Ruel Hamilton His Freedom Until It Decides on His Appeal

Dallas real estate developer Ruel Hamilton was convicted of bribery in 2021 and sentenced to eight years in prison, but the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to delay his sentence until it rules on his case.
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Kelsey Shoemaker

Dallas real estate developer Ruel Hamilton will not have to report for prison while a Fifth Circuit court panel considers his appeal of a federal bribery conviction, according to court documents filed last week.

Hamilton was convicted in June 2021 for paying former Dallas City Councilman Dwaine Caraway and the late Councilwoman Carolyn Davis money in exchange for votes that would help his company, AmeriSouth Realty Group, build subsidized apartment complexes in southern Dallas. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and ordered to pay a $150,000 fine.

Hamilton was due to report to prison on Tuesday, but the three-judge Fifth Circuit court panel ruled that it would like to hear his appeal. Hamilton’s attorneys have argued that his conviction was based on a broad interpretation of a federal bribery statute. The panel found that this argument merited further consideration, and will allow Hamilton to remain free until they rule.

Hamilton’s argument questions whether the statute upon which he was convicted “covers mere gratuities or unofficial acts, and if so, whether his conviction is constitutional in light of certain Supreme Court decisions,” the panel’s order reads. It also says that the Fifth Circuit has never considered this argument. “There are already circuit splits on some or all of these issues,” the order continues.

Hamilton’s argument at trial was that the statute he was accused of violating only makes bribery illegal, not “gratuities.” The jury had been instructed that they didn’t need to look at any difference between gratuities and bribes, which Hamilton’s appeal asserts were incorrect instructions. 

“Thanking an official for something she would have done anyway is a gratuity; bribery intends an exchange,” Hamilton’s appeal documents said.

The order also mentions Hamilton’s health issues. The 66-year-old had quadruple-bypass heart surgery in March, and the order notes that a “recent MRI revealed ‘two large, abnormal lymph nodes along his spine’ which may indicate his cancer has returned and that he has a need to have them biopsied before reporting.”

Circuit Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, who penned the ruling, stressed that the court’s ruling regarding when his sentence begins was based on the merits of his appeal, not his health.

This is the second delay Hamilton has received. He was scheduled to report to prison in February, but was allowed to postpone his report date to July 19 prior to his heart surgery in March. The appellate panel began hearing oral arguments on the case last month.

In June 2021, Hamilton was convicted of one count of conspiracy and two counts of bribery of an agent of a local government receiving federal funds. Davis had pleaded guilty to accepting Hamilton’s bribes shortly before her death in a car accident in 2019. Caraway, who was already being investigated for his part in another bribery case involving Dallas County Schools, agreed to film a video showing Hamilton writing him a check for $7,000 in exchange for Caraway urging the mayor to place a referendum on a City Council agenda.

That video was shown in court during the trial.

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

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