Monday, June 18, 2018

U.S. v. Espino (9th Cir. - June 18, 2018)

When I prepare final exams, I find it's sometimes difficult to create fill-in-the-blank short answer questions that are uniformly perfect.  Ditto for multiple choice questions.  Sometimes unexpected ambiguities creep in notwithstanding one's best efforts.

The same's true for verdict forms.

The district court here gave the jury a verdict form that read:  “We the jury in the above entitled cause unanimously find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant, Flora Espino is: ________ of providing materially false testimony to the Grand Jury.”

The jury deliberates an hour before finding her guilty.  Which, parenthetically, it seems like she totally was.

She then appeals, claiming that the verdict form improperly shifted the burden on her to prove that she's not guilty.  Which is right.  Because, under the form, in order to fill in the blank with "not guilty," the jury would technically have to find her not guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt" -- rather than just finding her not guilty because the prosecution hadn't established its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

But the Ninth Circuit finds the error harmless, because the jury instructions made the proper burden totally clear.

And, I suspect, the fact that the jury had no trouble whatsoever finding Ms. Espino guilty played a part in the harmless error finding as well.

Life lesson for the day:  Don't lie to a grand jury.  Take the Fifth if appropriate.

And, if you're a district court, maybe double check your written work.