Failure to Check 'Guilty' Gets Defendant New Trial

By Brett Snider, Esq. on September 24, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Jury verdict forms are intended to make the criminal justice process easier, but when forms are lacking required elements, a defendant may be entitled to a new trial.

That was the case in United States v. Amaya, where a defendant who was tried for money laundering in concert with a drug conspiracy was granted a retrial based on the fact that his verdict form lacked boxes for "guilty" or "not guilty."

Is such a small error enough to redo an entire trial?

District Court Grants Retrial Based on "Plain Error"

Javier Amaya and his brother were on trial for money laundering in connection with a larger drug conspiracy, and upon the end of the trial, the jury found both of them guilty on all counts ... sort of.

The problem was that the jury verdict form had check boxes for "guilty" or "not guilty" with respect to the money laundering charge, except for some reason, the form lacked these check boxes for Javier -- but strangely not for his brother.

When the district judge noticed the mistake, he tried to remedy it by polling the jury. Twice. Despite the uncontested jury verdict of guilty, the district court still granted Amaya's Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure (FRCP) Rule 33 motion for a retrial.

The district court judge noted that two plain errors necessitated a new trial:

  1. The erroneous jury verdict form
  2. The attempt to ameliorate or substitute jury verdict form with juror polling

Retrials are not something you just order all willy-nilly, you have to apply them sparingly and with caution -- like one would when using MSG, or taking your child to an R-rated movie.

Retrial Not Abuse of Discretion

Reviewing the retrial decision for abuse of discretion, the Eighth Circuit found that granting the Rule 33 motion was kosher for a couple reasons. First, there is a substantial danger of prejudice in polling a deadlocked jury, and when the district court polled a jury who had been given a jury form without a place to designate "guilty," that's essentially what happened.

Second, jury procedure needs to be followed to a "t" or else a court risks affecting the "fairness, integrity, or public reputation" of the whole proceeding. So while it may seem like a little mistake that the lower court wanted desperately to remedy through a new trial, in protecting the defendant's due process rights, the Eighth Circuit believes it's better to be safe than sorry.

Bottom Line

The sole dissenter in Amaya think that these errors were so de minimis that this decision only forces the court to waste tax payer dollars. This is a cautionary tale for prosecutors; fail to correctly draft a jury instruction or verdict form and you may have to retry the case.

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