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Decided: April 30, 2014

The Fourth Circuit vacated the Appellant’s conviction and sentence, and remanded the case because the district court violated the Appellant’s right to have a jury determine his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Appellant was charged with knowingly possessing prohibited objects while incarcerated as an inmate at a South Carolina (SC) Federal Correctional Institute in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1791(a)(2), (b)(3), and (c).  A jury trial was held on September 25, 2012, where the district court charged the jury with determining whether the first object at issue (a shank) was a “weapon,” and whether the second object (a sharpened piece of metal) was in the appellant’s possession.  The jury answered, “yes” to each question, but never determined whether the appellant was “guilty” or “not guilty” of the charged offense.  Despite never being found guilty, the appellant was sentenced to thirty-three months in prison in 2013.  Appellant then timely appealed.

The Fourth Circuit stated that it reviewed for plain error when the appellant’s trial counsel failed to raise an objection to a particular issue before the district court.  Here, the district court rejected the suggestion that the verdict form should ask the jury for a finding of “guilty” or “not guilty,” and drafted the questions that went to the jury itself.  The Fourth Circuit stated that according to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b) it may only correct an unpreserved error if (1) an error was made, (2) the error is plain, (3) the error affects substantial rights, and (4) the error seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.  Here, the Court reasoned that the district court instructed the jury that they need not consider certain elements of each crime, instead of asking the jury to determine whether or not the appellant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of each element of the charged offenses.  By giving these instructions, the district court infringed on the jury’s role by stating that certain facts essential to appellant’s conviction had already been conclusively established.  Further, the Court found that the district court erred by preventing the jury from making the “ultimate, indispensible conclusion” of guilty or not guilty.  Additionally, the Court determined that the error was plain because a court is prohibited from directing a verdict against a defendant, and requires that a jury make the ultimate determination of guilt.  The Court stated that appellant was deprived of the right to a jury finding him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  This right is a basic protection without which a criminal trial does not serve its requisite function, thus, the Court opined that the district court’s error also affected appellant’s substantial rights.  The Fourth Circuit exercised its discretion and noted that the district court’s plain error by stating that a failure to do so would gravely affect the fairness, integrity, and public reputation of the judiciary.

Full Opinion

-Alysja S. Garansi