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United States v. Woods, No. 11-4817

Decided: March 18, 2013

Woods was convicted of numerous charges arising from a tax fraud scheme. On appeal, he argued that his trial was prejudiced by three errors: (1) that the district court improperly restricted his constitutional right to testify in his own defense, (2) that the prosecutor committed reversible error by making an improper statement during closing argument, and (3) that the district court’s instructions to the jury were improper. The Court of Appeals found that, while two errors occurred during the Woods’ trial, neither constituted reversible error. As such, the Court affirmed Woods’ convictions.

Woods first argued that he was effectively denied his constitutional right to testify in his own defense because the district court repeatedly sustained the government’s objections during his testimony and otherwise limited his presentation of evidence. The Court of Appeals reviewed the entire record and concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in its evidentiary rulings, did not act arbitrarily, and did not impose limitations on Woods’ testimony that were disproportionate to the legitimate evidentiary and trial management concerns. As such, the Court held that the district court did not deprive Woods of his constitutional right to testify in his own defense.

Woods also alleged that he was prejudiced by an improper statement that the prosecutor made during closing argument; specifically, by the prosecutor’s argument that Woods had lied under oath. The Court first noted that since Woods did not object to the prosecutor’s statement at trial, plain error review applied, under which Woods must show that the district court committed plain error and that the error affected his substantial rights thereby impacting the outcome of the trial. The Court then reviewed the record and found that, in light of the volume of evidence of Woods’ guilt, the one improper statement by the prosecutor did not violate Woods’ substantial rights and thus did not warrant reversal of his convictions.

Woods also contested the jury charge on the grounds that the district court improperly declined to include his requested character evidence instruction and improperly instructed the jury on the statutory elements of an offense. The Court of Appeals rejected these arguments finding that, in light of the strength of the government’s case in comparison to the defense evidence, the jury would have returned guilty verdicts with or without the requested character instruction, and that, considering the jury charge as a whole, the instructions accurately stated the statutory elements of the offense at issue.

Finally, Woods argued that his convictions should be vacated because the cumulative effect of the alleged errors prejudiced the outcome of his trial. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument holding that it could not conclude that the two errors that occurred during Woods’ trial prejudiced his case so as to justify the unusual remedy of reversal based on cumulative error.

In summary, the Court of Appeals found that Woods’ trial was affected by two errors, but held that those errors, when considered both individually and cumulatively, do not warrant reversal of Woods’ convictions.

Full Opinion

– Kassandra Moore