Wednesday, April 23, 2008

No Jury Finding on Drug Weight Doesn't Undermine Guilty Verdict

US v. Reid: Reid and his co-defendants were charged with (among other things), conspiracy to distribute more than 50 grams of crack and murder. Reid acted as a sort of middle man, purchasing powder cocaine for conversion into crack as well as amounts of crack that were then sold to street-level dealers. After being arrested on state charges, Reid told co-defendants he thought he was set up by an informant, who was eventually murdered. Reid's role in the actual killing was to provide transportation and disposal of the murder weapon. At trial, Reid was convicted, but on the crack count the jury did not return a verdict indicated the specific amount of crack involved. He was sentenced to 240 months in prison on the conspiracy charge and life on the murder charge.

On appeal, Reid argued (via plain error) that the district court's instructions left the jury with three options: convict of conspiracy involving more than 50 grams of crack, convict of more than 5 but less than 50 grams of crack, or acquit. The Fourth Circuit agreed, in a strange way, holding that the district court did indeed err in its instructions to the jury, but only because it tied the crack amounts to a "guilty" verdict in the first place. As the Fourth explains:

in order to obtain a conviction on Count 1, the government was required to prove that (1) an agreement to possess cocaine with intent to distribute existed between two or more persons; (2) Reid knew of the conspiracy; and (3) Reid knowingly and voluntarily became a part of this conspiracy. In instructing the jury that a specific drug quantity was an element of conviction under § 841(a), the district court misstated the law and heightened the government’s burden of proof.

(citation omitted). So there was error and it was plain, but Reid could not show prejudice because the sentence he received on that count (240 months) was the maximum allowed for a conviction without regard to a specific amount of crack. The court also rejected Reid's sufficiency challenge to his convictions.

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