ABA Case Updates: U.S. Supreme Court Cases Related to Criminal Justice Decided June 24, 2010

A Service from the ABA Criminal Justice Section (CJS), http://www.abanet.org/crimjust*

United States Supreme Court Decisions: Decided: June 24, 2010
1)Black v. United States No. 08-076

2)Skilling v. United States

3)Magwood v. Patterson

Black v. United States No. 08-076

In a 9-0 decision today, the Supreme Court held that a criminal defendant does not forfeit his or her objection to an honest-services fraud jury instruction simply by (1) opposing the Government’s request to use special verdict forms, or (2) failing to make his or her own request for special verdict forms.

Defendant-petitioners in this case-executives of the publicly-held U.S. company Hollinger International, Inc. (Hollinger)-were originally indicted on three counts of mail fraud under 18 U.S.C. §§ 1341, 1346, as well as other federal crimes. During trial, the Government asserted two alternative mail fraud theories: (1) that Petitioners stole millions from Hollinger by fraudulently paying themselves bogus “noncompetition fees,” and (2) that by failing to disclose those fees, Petitioners failed to provide Hollinger with their honest services. Prior to the commencement of jury deliberations, the Government suggested the use of special verdict forms (interrogatories) in order to allow the jury to specify which theory they used as the basis of their verdict. Petitioners refused the use of special verdict forms, opting instead for the use of general verdict forms. Ultimately, the Government agreed.

Prior to deliberation, the District Court instructed the jury on both of the Government’s alternative theories. With regard to the second theory of honest-services fraud, the District Court explained to the jury (over Petitioners’ timely objection) that “a person commits honest-services fraud if he ‘misuse[s] his position for private gain for himself and/or a co-schemer’ and ‘knowingly and intentionally breach[es] his duty of loyalty.'” The jury ultimately returned guilty verdicts on all three mail fraud counts, recording their decision on general verdict forms.

On appeal, Petitioners asserted that the honest-services fraud jury instruction was invalid. Based on the rule established in Yates v. United States, a general verdict can be set aside “where the verdict is supportable on one ground, but not on another, and it is impossible to tell which ground the jury selected.” 354 U.S. 298, 312 (1957). The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that by opposing the Government’s suggestion for the use of special interrogatories and by failing to make their own request for special interrogatories, Petitioners had forfeited their right to object to the honest-services fraud instructions given to the jury.

The Supreme Court held that Petitioners did not need to request special interrogatories or acquiesce in the Government’s request for discrete findings by the jury in order to maintain their challenge on appeal. Because Petitioners made a timely objection at trial, they adequately preserved their right to challenge the jury instructions. Moreover, the Court of Appeals effectively sanctioned Petitioners without providing notice (via a federal law or the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure) that resisting the Government’s special verdict request would result in forfeiture of their right to challenge the honest-services fraud jury instructions. According to Criminal Rule 57(b), no such sanction can “be imposed for noncompliance with any requirement not in federal law [or] federal rules . . . unless the alleged violator was furnished with actual notice of the requirement before the noncompliance.”

Judgment reversed and remanded.

GINSBURG, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS,

C. J., and STEVENS, BREYER, ALITO, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which THOMAS, J., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

Decision available at: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-876.pdf.

By: Ashley N. Southerland, CJS Legal Intern

Skilling v. United States No. No. 08–1394
United States Supreme Court Decision: Decided: June 24, 2010
Today, the Supreme Court denied Jeffrey Skilling’s arguments that pretrial publicity prevented him from receiving a fair trial, but held that the jury improperly convicted him on the charge of conspiracy to commit “honest services” wire fraud. The vote was unanimous in regard to the “honest services” question, although three justices would have ruled that the statute is unconstitutional.

Skilling, former Enron CEO, had been previously charged with 25 substantive counts of securities fraud, wire fraud, making false representations and insider trading. In November 2004, Skilling was denied a change of venue despite hostility in Houston surrounding the downfall of Enron; the District Court contending that evidence of hostility did not warrant a presumption that Skilling would be unable to obtain a fair trial. After a four month trial in Houston, the jury found Skilling guilty of 19 counts, including honest-services fraud and conspiracy but not guilty of 9 insider-trading counts.

On appeal Skilling made two arguments. First, that pretrial publicity and community prejudice prevented him from obtaining a fair trial. Second, he contended that the jury improperly convicted him of conspiracy to commit honest-services wire fraud contending that 18 U. S. C. § 1346 (1988) was unconstitutionally vague in context.

In regards to jury contamination the court held that the pretrial publicity did not establish a presumption of juror prejudice or that he was convicted by a biased jury. Utilizing the Rideau v. Louisiana standard for jury contamination due to pretrial publicity the court noted distinct differences in the instant case. 373 U.S. 723 (1963). First, Houston is the 4th largest city and suggestions that twelve unbiased jurors were not available were difficult to sustain. Second, the court noted that unlike the swift trial following the bank robbery in Rideau, there was a four year lapse between the highly public Enron bankruptcy and Skilling’s trial. Finally, the court noted that mere evidence of negative media attention, even in the magnitude evident before the Enron trial, is not enough to inevitably lead to an unfair trial. The court further contended that there was no actual jury prejudice shown; describing the fair and balanced voir dire process utilized that would have adequately detected and defused juror prejudice.

While sustaining the constitutionality of §1346 the court still reversed Skilling’s honest-services wire fraud convictions. The “honest services” theory of fraud notes that an offender may profit from a fraudulent scheme by loss of the offenders’ “honest services,” creating actionable harm-despite no loss of actual property or money. The court noted that as codified in §1346 this honest services fraud is not unconstitutionally vague on its face, but should be read strictly to reach only bribery and kickback schemes. Under this strict interpretation, Skilling did not violate §1346 since the Government charged that Skilling conspired to defraud Enron’s shareholder’s by misrepresenting financial data, but never alleged that he solicited or accepted side payments from a third party in exchange for these misrepresentations. Whether or not the reversal on the conspiracy count would touch the other convictions, or whether the error is harmless, is to be determined upon remand.

Judgment affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.

Additionally, in a per curiam decision the court vacated judgment in Weyhrauch v. United States (No. 08–1196) and the remanded to the 9th Circuit for further consideration in light of the Skilling decision. http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-1196.pdf
GINSBURG, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, Part I of which was joined by ROBERTS, C. J., and STEVENS, SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., Part II of which was joined by ROBERTS, C. J., and SCALIA, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., and Part III of which was joined by ROB-ERTS, C. J., and STEVENS, BREYER, ALITO, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which THOMAS, J., joined, and KENNEDY, J., joined except as to Part III. ALITO, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which STEVENS and BREYER, JJ., joined..

Decision available at: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-1394.pdf
By: Caitlin E. Huggins, CJS Legal Intern

Magwood v. Patterson, No. 09-158

United States Supreme Court Decision: Decided: June 24, 2010
In a 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit’s holding that the petitioner’s challenge to his new death sentence was an unreviewable “second or successive” change under 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b) since he had the opportunity to present the same challenge to his original death sentence. Instead, the Court ruled that because the petitioner’s habeas application “challenges a new judgment for the first time,” it is not “second or successive” under the statute.

Petitioner Billy Joe Magwood was indicated by a grand jury for the murder of an on-duty sheriff, a capital offense under Alabama Code § 13-11-2(a)(5) (1975). While incarcerated for a drug offense, the petitioner, who had a long history of mental illness, murdered a sheriff because he believed that the sheriff had imprisoned him without cause. Alabama courts affirmed the death sentence, and the petitioner filed a writ of habeas corpus. After the District Court ordered that he be released or resentenced, the state trial court again sentenced him to death. He filed a second federal habeas application, challenging this new sentence on the grounds that he previously did not receive fair warning that his conduct was death eligible under Alabama law and that his attorney was ineffective during resentencing. After the District Court conditionally granted the writ, the Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding that the petitioner’s challenge to his new death sentence was an unreviewable “second or successive’ challenge per 28 U.S.C. 2244(b) because he had the option to raise his fair-warning claim in his first habeas application.

The underlying question was whether the petitioner’s application to challenge his death sentence, as imposed per the District Court’s resentencing, is subject to § 2244(b)’s “second or successive” habeas application constraints. The State contended that although the phrase “second or successive” applies to “application[s],” it “is a claim-focused statute,” and that “[c]laims, not applications, are barred by § 2244(b).” They contended that the phrase implies that “a prisoner is entitled to one, but only one, full and fair opportunity to wage a collateral attack,” and that the petitioner’s fair-warning claim was successive because he had an opportunity to raise it in his first application. The petitioner contended that § 2244(b) applies only to a “second or successive” application challenging the same state-court judgment, and therefore, his resentencing led to a new judgment. Thus, his application challenging the new judgment was not “second or successive.” The court agreed with the petitioner and found that the phrase “second or successive” refers to all § 2254 applications filed second or successively in time.

Reversed and remanded.

THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part IV– B. SCALIA, J., joined in full, and STEVENS, BREYER, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined, except as to Part IV–B. BREYER, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which STEVENS and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and GINSBURG and ALITO, JJ., joined.

Case is available at: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/09-158.pdf
By: Stacey L. Sklaver, CJS Legal Intern
_____________________________________ * We both acknowledge and appreciate the efforts and dedication of the CJS Legal Interns, Ashley N Southerland, Caitlin E. Huggins, and Stacey L Sklaver in preparing the above commentary.

Contact Information