Friday, April 01, 2016

Adequacy of jury instructions on results from death language

US v. Alvarado:  Alvarado received a conviction for knowingly and intentionally distributing heroin to Eric Thomas in March 2011, which distribution resulted in Thomas’ death.  Alvarado received a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years.  On appeal, Alvarado contended that the district court  erred in failing to clarify for the jury that the “results-in-death” statutory language meant that the jury could not convict Alvarado of the charged offense if heroin was only a contributing cause of death.  Alvarado also argued that the district court failed to instruct the jury that Alvarado must have “reasonably foreseen” that Thomas’ death could result from the distribution; and, that admitting hearsay testimony violated the rule against hearsay and Alvarado’s rights under the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause.

At trial, the jury asked the district court twice to clarify the meaning of the “death results from” element of the heroin distribution offense.  The district court declined to elaborate further.  The main question presented in the appeal is whether the district court should have explained further the statutory phrasing “results from.” Alvarado argued that the district court’s decision not to elaborate further (a decision which the defendant concurred at trial, subjecting this claim on appeal to plain error review) allowed the jury to convict Alvarado even if heroin was only a contributing cause of Thomas’ death, a more lenient standard that “but-for” causation, which standard the Supreme Court set out in Burrage.  As the dissenting opinion notes, the jury here unmistakably expressed its confusion as to the causation requirement, despite the district court’s tracking of the statutory language in its instructions.

The Fourth Circuit panel majority concluded, however, that because there was no evidence in the record that Thomas could have died without the heroin, that the jury’s verdict was consistent with the Supreme Court’s but-for causation requirement.

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