Avoiding Not-So-Harmless Errors: The Appropriate Standards for Appellate Review of Willful-Blindness Jury Instructions

Author:Justin C. From
Position:J.D. Candidate, The University of Iowa College of Law, 2012
Pages:275-301
SUMMARY

Federal trial courts frequently misuse willful-blindness jury instructions. This note argues for the federal appellate courts to implement a consistent set of standards that would curb this misuse and help bring clarity to the willful-blindness doctrine.

 
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Avoiding Not-So-Harmless Errors: The
Appropriate Standards for Appellate
Review of Willful-Blindness Jury
Instructions
Justin C. From
ABSTRACT: From fairly inconspicuous beginnings, the willful-blindness
doctrine has proliferated throughout federal cour ts. Federal prosecutors
currently request willful-blindness jury instructions even when the evidence
does not warrant their use, and trial judges frequently grant these requests
over defense objections that inappropriate willful-blindness instructions
confuse jurors and relieve prosecutors of their burden of proof with respect to
the defendant’s mental state. One of the primary reasons federal courts
misuse willful-blindness instructions is that the circuits are split over the
appropriate guidelines for the appellate review of willful-blindness
instructions. To curb misuse of willful-blindness instructions, appellate
courts should use the abuse-of-discretion standard to review a trial court’s
decision to give a willful-blindness instruction, use the de novo standard to
review the accuracy of the wording of a willful-blindness instruction, and
delineate instances where the inappropriate use of willful-blindness
instructions is not harmless error, especially in contexts such as white-collar
criminal prosecutions.
I.INTRODUCTION: THE MISUSE OF WILLFUL-BLINDNESS
INSTRUCTIONS IN THE CONTEXT OF WHITE-COLLAR CRIMINAL
PROSECUTIONS ....................................................................................... 277
II.THE DEVELOPMENT AND CRITICISMS OF WILLFUL-BLINDNESS
INSTRUCTIONS ........................................................................................ 281
J.D. Candidate, The University of Iowa College of Law, 2012; B.A., Central College,
2006. I would like to thank my writing professors at Central College and The University of Iowa
College of Law for their excellent instruction; the attorn eys at Belin McCormick, P.C. for
providing me with the opportunity to work on a project that exposed me to this topic; the
editors and writers of Volumes 96 and 97 of the Iowa Law Review, es pecially Walter Gindin and
Christopher Wendell, for all of their work and feedback on this Note; and my wife, Tara, and
my family for their support.
276 IOWA LAW REVIEW [Vol. 97:275
III.THE CURRENT STATE OF CONFUSION SURROUNDING THE
APPROPRIATE STANDARDS FOR APPELLATE REVIEW OF WILLFUL-
BLINDNESS INSTRUCTIONS ...................................................................... 286
A.THE CIRCUIT SPLIT OVER THE APPROPRIATE STANDARDS OF REVIEW
FOR WILLFUL-BLINDNESS JURY INSTRUCTIONS ..................................... 287
1.The Ninth and Tenth Circuits’ Standards............................. 287
2.The Fourth Circuit’s Standard ............................................... 290
3.The Second and Eleventh Circuits’ Standards ..................... 291
B.THE CIRCUIT SPLIT OVER THE STANDARDS FOR HARMLESS-ERROR
REVIEW OF WILLFUL-BLINDNESS INSTRUCTIONS .................................. 291
1.The Eleventh Circuit’s Harmless-Per-Se Standard for
Properly Worded Willful-Blindness Instructions .................. 292
2.The Fifth, Eighth, and Ninth Circuits’ Standard for
Reversing Willful-Blindness Instructions ............................... 294
3.Harmless-Error Review of Willful-Blindness Instructions
in the Context of White-Collar Criminal Prosecutions ........ 295
IV.THE APPROPRIATE STANDARDS FOR THE APPELLATE REVIEW OF
WILLFUL-BLINDNESS INSTRUCTIONS ...................................................... 297
A.THE APPROPRIATE STANDARDS OF REVIEW FOR WILLFUL-BLINDNESS
INSTRUCTIONS .................................................................................. 297
B.THE APPROPRIATE STANDARDS FOR HARMLESS-ERROR REVIEW OF
WILLFUL-BLINDNESS INSTRUCTIONS ................................................... 299
V.CONCLUSION .......................................................................................... 301

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