Friday, May 13, 2011

"Structural" versus "trial error" in discussion of co-defendants' guilty pleas

US v. Poole: Poole, an accountant, was convicted following a bench trial of four counts of aiding and assisting in the preparation of false tax returns. The Fourth Circuit affirmed.

Poole's appeal challenged the district court's verdict in three ways, claiming that the convictions were unlawfully based on the guilty pleas of his co-defendants, on the improperly credited testimony by a key government witness that Poole believed to have been false, and insufficient evidence that he knew the returns were fraudulent and that he acted willfully in filing them.

Poole referred to the district court's multiple mentions of his co-defendants' guilty plea on the record as grounds for denying him a fair trial. The Fourth Circuit found these statements to constitute error on the basis that the district court gave consideration to facts not in evidence. While Poole wanted the Fourth Circuit to find this error as "structural" as opposed to "trial error," as explained in United States v. Blevins, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court's error was "a classic example of trial error subject to harmless error review," and following a harmless error analysis, found the error harmless in light of "overwhelming" evidence of Poole's guilt.

The Fourth Circuit considered Poole's second appeal issue as a request to reverse a credibility determination, made by the district court, which it declined to do; it deferred to the district court's estimation of the witness's credibility and reliability. Finally, the Fourth Circuit determined that Poole purposefully ignored large accounting discrepancies, such that he could not claim willfull blindness about his clients' financial misdeeds.

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