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U.S. v MCDONNELL NO. 15-4019

Decided: July 10, 2015

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court.

This case was an appeal of a jury trial that found Robert McDonnell and his wife guilty of accepting bribes in exchange for helping a Virginia company acquire testing at a state university for a dietary supplement developed by the company. Specifically, the jury found McDonnell guilty of eleven counts of corruption and not guilty on the two counts of making a false statement. McDonnell appealed, challenging the jury instructions, claiming there was insufficient evidence against him, that he and his wife’s trials should have been severed, that his Sixth Amendment rights were violated during voir dire, and that the district court incorrectly ruled on several evidentiary issues.

After a lengthy description of the alleged occurrences between McDonnell, his wife, and Williams, the Fourth Circuit began its analysis by reviewing the motion for severance for abuse of discretion. Since McDonnell and his wife were defendants together as members of a conspiracy, the Court noted that McDonnell needed to make an initial showing of a need for his wife’s testimony, and that since he only made vague statements about the need for her testimony, he did not meet the initial threshold. The Court next considered McDonnell’s argument that the district court failed in its voir dire of potential jurors in that it specifically failed to question jurors on the pretrial publicity. Although McDonnell argued that the Supreme Court’s decision in Skilling v. United States supported his position, the Fourth Circuit emphasized that Skilling in fact underscored the very opposite of McDonnell’s argument because Skilling maintained that jury selection remained “particularly within the province of the trial judge.” Although McDonnell challenged the sufficiency of the jury questionnaire, as well as the decision of the trial judge to question the jurors as a group instead of individually about pretrial publicity, the Court found that the trial judge’s questions were “adequate to provide a reasonable assurance that prejudice would be discovered if present.”

The Court then considered McDonnell’s claim that the district court erred multiple times in ruling on evidence. The Court noted that it reviewed such rulings for abuse of discretion, “affording substantial deference to the district court.” After considering the exclusion of expert testimony, the admission of statements of economic interest, admission of other gifts evidence, admission of email exchange regarding free golf, and the return of forensic image of Williams’s iPhone, the Court upheld the lower court’s rulings, and noted that in any case, the iPhone claim had not been properly preserved for appeal.

The Fourth Circuit then turned to what it considered to be the core arguments of the appeal. First, the Court addressed McDonnell’s claims that the jury instructions “misstated fundamental principles of federal bribery law.” McDonnell claimed that the jury instructions of bribery were too expansive of the definition, and the Court determined that it would review de novo this jury instruction. Furthermore, even if an element of the charge was misconstrued, the Court could dismiss the error as harmless provided that it was “clear beyond a reasonable doubt that a rational jury would have found the defendant guilty absent the error.” After examining the relevant statutes that McDonnell was convicted under and comparing the language in the statutes to the jury instructions, and examined the challenged definition of “official act,” the Court found that McDonnell had failed to show that the “official act” instructions were “anything less than a fair and accurate statement of law.” The Court also rejected McDonnell’s “Quid Pro Quo” instruction arguments. Then, the Court addressed the claim that the “Government’s evidence was insufficient to support his convictions pursuant to the honest-services wire fraud statute and the Hobbs Act.” The Court also reviewed this claim de novo to determine the sufficiency of the evidence in a light most favorable to the Government. Although the Court acknowledged that the Government had to prove that Williams’s payments to the family came with a “corrupt understanding” and that the “key to that understanding was the expectation that Appellant would perform certain official acts for Williams’s benefit,” an examination of the evidence presented at trial showed that McDonnell’s acts were official acts and that the Government satisfied its burden in showing corrupt intent on both sides. The Fourth Circuit therefore held that McDonnell received a fair trial and affirmed the judgment of the district court.

Full opinion

Jennie Rischbieter