April 18, 2011
Reflecting on Skilling after the Barry Bonds Verdict
I was annoyed by the result in Skilling—that the unquestionable honest-services error was “harmless” beyond a reasonable doubt. But at the time I couldn’t articulate exactly why. After the Bonds verdict, I can. In short, the Bonds verdict illustrates the silliness of the conclusion in Skilling that appellate courts can and should sit as the 13th, 14th, and 15th jurors, then use a cold record to speak for the first 12 jurors while pretending appellate courts have crystal balls that make this okay.
Compare the two cases. Skilling’s trial was infected by honest-services error: in the indictment; in the evidence; in the argument; and in the instructions. Kicking a door cracked open by the Supreme Court in Pulido, the Fifth Circuit swept this under the rug—finding harmlessness—by pretending it could satisfactorily predict that the jury would have convicted on all counts even absent the error. To be sure, this put the nail in the coffin for the Yates standard of review, which said that when multiple theories are charged and instructed and one is impermissible, reversal usually is automatic because it is “impossible to tell” whether the jury relied on the impermissible theory. The Yates standard respected the constitutional right to an impartial jury of one’s peers (which appellate courts concerned with finality and efficiency certainly are not); it recognized the limitations of an appellate court’s ability to predict the past under changed circumstances; and it acknowledged that juries are composed of human beings (not robots) who can be and often are influenced by intangibles not apparent in a paper record.
The Bonds verdict illustrates why eradicating the Yates standard was a bad idea—and indeed leads to a standard that infringes the right to an impartial jury of one’s peers. Bonds was charged with repeatedly lying to a grand jury, and obstruction of justice essentially based on repeatedly lying to that grand jury. With a proper indictment and charge, the impartial jury of Bonds’ peers hung on whether Bonds lied to the grand jury, but agreed that he obstructed by lying to the grand jury. There are hyper-technical legal ways to attempt to explain this—but in reality (where jurors live), the verdict makes little sense. And surely Bonds’ attorneys will file a motion challenging the sole conviction on this basis.
But more importantly to me, Bonds illustrates what was right with Yates and what is wrong with Skilling. Appellate court’s aren’t very good at predicting the past under changed circumstances. I’d venture to guess that if the Fifth Circuit judges who decided Skilling had placed bets on the Bonds verdict, they’d have batted 0 for 3 predicting hung counts on lying but conviction on obstruction based on lying.
I hope the defense bar won’t give up on the Yates standard.
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While I agree with you on Yates, the Bonds jury found him guilty of obstruction by special verdict/interrogatory in that he was intentionally evasive not lying.
Posted by: steve sadow | Apr 18, 2011 4:31:20 AM