Where error was committed by allowing reckless disregard standard into jury instructions, error did not affect defendant’s substantial rights because overwhelming evidence existed in the record to support defendant’s actual knowledge
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a decision by Judge William M. Conley, Western District of Wisconsin.
From February to August 2015, Maurice Withers recruited women and girls to prostitute and advertised their services on websites such as Backpage.com, Craigslist.com and other online dating platforms. Withers transported the women and girls to various Wisconsin cities, as well as to Iowa and Nevada. While there, Withers forced, threatened and coerced the women and girls to engage in sex acts for money that he would then keep.
After several months, numerous victims were identified by law enforcement. Withers was arrested and charged with nine counts of sex trafficking. As the case proceeded to trial, the government proposed jury instructions on four of those counts that would have allowed Withers to be found guilty if he either knew or recklessly disregarded that force, threats of force, or coercion would be used to cause the women to engage in commercial sex acts. Absent from the superseding indictment against Withers, however, was the “recklessly disregarded” mens rea element. The district court ruled, and the parties agreed, that the jury instructions would not include that phrase. At trial, however, the court’s instructions included that phrase and neither the court nor the parties recognized the error. A jury found Withers guilty on all counts. Withers then appealed.
On appeal, Withers challenged the four convictions that included the inaccurate instructions, arguing the jury was improperly allowed to consider a lesser mental state. The appellate panel began by citing United States v. Groce, stating that two states of mind support sex trafficking: knowledge or reckless disregard. The panel noted that neither party disputed that the jury instructions were plainly wrong as to the state-of-mind requirement on the four challenged counts. The panel stated that it was error for the jury to be able to consider the trial evidence at the lesser standard of reckless disregard.
The panel then stated the evidence at Withers’ trial did not prove a new or different crime, and therefore no constructive amendment occurred. The panel continued, stating that the evidence the jury heard on Withers’ state of mind was the same regardless of the mens rea element, and it demonstrated overwhelmingly that Withers knew that his conduct caused the women to engage in prostitution. The panel stated that the record contained an enormous amount of proof of Withers’ actual knowledge.
The panel concluded by stating that the same applied to the prosecutor’s closing argument during which she merely repeated the court’s jury instructions. The panel found that the prosecutor neither provided the jury members with new information to support a different claim nor elaborated on the recklessly disregarded standard to prove a lesser charge. The panel determined that, as in Groce, the inaccurate instruction did not affect the defendant’s substantial rights. The panel therefore affirmed the decision of the district court.
United States v. Maurice A. Withers
Writing for the court: Judge Michael B. Brennan
Concurring: Judges Frank H. Easterbrook and Michael S. Kanne
Released: May 28, 2020