WASHINGTON – What a difference an article could make.
Especially if knowing about “a crime” could mean guilt on lesser charges,but knowing about “the crime” could mean being held accountable for a murder someone else committed.
U.S. Supreme Court justices pored over the language of an accomplice-liability statute Wednesday and how it possibly colored the jury instructions given in a drive-by shooting trial,in Waddington v. Sarausad.
The case was one of two habeas corpus cases involving defendants found guilty of murder as accomplices.
Waddington,from Washington state,and Hedgpeth v. Pulido,from California,were brought to the justices after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined jury instructions were flawed in both trials.
The issues before the court in Waddington were whether the trial court's instructions to the jury were so ambiguous that the jury was too confused to render a fair verdict and whether the Ninth Circuit overstepped its boundaries in reversing the lower courts' decisions.
In 1994,Cesar Sarausad,then 19,was convicted of second-degree murder and other charges for his role as driver in a drive-by shooting at a Seattle high school that killed a girl and injured another student. Sarausad said he expected a fistfight at the school,not a shooting,and a core issue for the jury was whether he knew enough about the plans to be an accomplice to murder.
The Hedgpeth case stems from a 1992 robbery in which Michael Pulido,then 16,was found guilty of first-degree murder of a gas station clerk. Lower courts disagreed over whether a “late-joiner” theory – which would make Pulido guilty of murder even if someone else had shot the clerk while he was in the getaway car – was unconstitutional and harmful to his case.
The jury at Pulido's trial asked the judge several times to clarify the jury instruction about the late-joiner theory. The judge did not give the jury further clarification of the instruction.
At the time of Sarausad's conviction,Washington's accomplice liability law was interpreted to suggest a defendant did not need to know about the specific crime to be found guilty and that participating in the events leading up to the murder were enough for a conviction.
The prosecution's “in for a dime,in for a dollar” interpretation was challenged in 2000,when the Washington Supreme Court determined the accomplice liability statute was not designed so a defendant could be convicted of murder just because he or she participated in a crime. Rather,the court said accomplice liability depends on whether a defendant knows specifically about “the crime” for which he or she is charged.
The Ninth Circuit agreed and also concluded the instructions given to Sarausad's jury were ambiguous.
This ambiguity was an area of contention among the justices.
“They didn't get an answer. They were told to read an instruction that they had been told three times to read and obviously didn't understand,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said to Deputy U.S. Solicitor General William Collins,who argued the state's case. “We already know that many people,prosecutors,justices,misunderstood this ‘a crime.' Was it ‘a crime,' or ‘any crime.' Or ‘the crime'? So I think you can't avoid the confusing nature of the statute and the charge,which repeated the statute. It doesn't get clarified until the Washington Supreme Court says it means ‘the crime.'”
Collins said the trial court was not required to give supplemental instructions when jurors asked about the accomplice liability statute's wording and instead redirected the jury to the original instructions.
While Ginsburg and Justice David Souter told Collins the jury instructions were ambiguous,Justices Samuel Alito and Stephen Breyer said they found the instructions clear.
“I guess different people,I understand,can read the same words and come to different conclusions,” Breyer said to Jeffrey Fisher,Sarausad's lawyer. “But I have read the instruction and the statute,probably over a dozen times by now,and I can't find the slightest ambiguity.”
From there,the justices explored the possible merits of “in for a dime,in for a dollar” when dealing with defendants whose behavior could result in someone dying,even though death was not intended.
Breyer asked Fisher what the difference was between helping a friend shoot someone in the leg but missing,fatally,and simply punching someone in the stomach.
“When somebody is punched in the stomach,there is no reasonable belief that the person is going to be put in grave risk of death,” Fisher said. “And so as I said,the issue of this case … that the jury was demonstrably perplexed about,was,what did Mr. Sarausad know?”