Thursday, May 01, 2014

Guilty Verdict Actually Requires Guilty Verdict

US Ramirez-Catillo: Ramirez-Catillo was serving a sentence at FCI Estill when officials recovered two potential weapons from his cell.  One, "[a] homemade shank," was found on Ramirez-Catillo's person, while the other, a "piece of metal, sharpened to a point on one end" was found in his locker, along with several pairs of shoes and other personal items.  He was charged with possession of "two homemade weapons" in prison.  At trial, he testified that he used the "shank" to repair shoes (and showed where such repairs had been done on shoes recovered from his cell) and that he had never seen the "piece of metal" prior to the search, but admitted that it could be used as a weapon. The verdict form asked the jury two questions, whether the shank was a weapon and whether the piece of metal had been possessed by Ramirez-Catillo (as he conceded possessing the shank and that the piece of metal was a weapon), but did not specifically include choices for "guilty" or "not guilty."  The jury answered "yes" to both questions.  The district court concluded that Ramirez-Catillo was "adjudicated guilty" and sentenced him to 33 months in prison.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the conviction.  Applying plain error review, the court concluded that "we do not hesitate to conclude that Appellant's right to have a jury determine his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt was violated."  Rather than seeking a guilty/not guilty verdict, the district court put to the jury only questions to factual questions on disputed elements, but not all the elements of the offense.  At the court noted "the jury never actually returned a guilty verdict.  In fact, it was never given the opportunity to do so."  That error was plain, affected Ramirez-Catillo's substantial rights, and was the type of error of which the court would take notice.

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