Appeals Court Rebukes Judge for Ordering Jury to Convict Drug Defendant

The right to a trial by jury is the foundation of the American legal system. Both the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Illinois Constitution guarantee every person accused of a crime the right to present a defense to an “impartial jury.” No prosecutor or judge may waive or take away that right on behalf of a defendant.

Unfortunately, in the government’s zeal to convict individuals charged with serious drug offenses, even the right to a jury trial may be compromised. Recently a federal appeals court reversed the drug conviction of a defendant after the judge ordered the jury to return a guilty verdict. While there are cases where a judge may enter such a “directed verdict” in favor of a defendant (if the prosecution presents insufficient evidence to convict) no judge should ever unilaterally convict a defendant who has pleaded not guilty and asserted his or her right to a jury trial.

An Untimely Confession

The case involved a defendant accused of conspiring to distribute cocaine and other related offenses. The defendant pleaded not guilty and demanded a jury trial. At trial, the defendant’s attorney argued his client initially agreed to participate in the illegal drug conspiracy, but ultimately withdrew before any illegal drug deal took place. However, the defendant later took the stand in his own defense, against the advice of counsel, and confessed to all of the charges against him.

Based on this confession, the judge rejected defense counsel’s “withdrawal” argument and instructed the jury to return a guilty verdict. The jury complied with the direction. The defendant appealed.

Before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the prosecution argued the defendant waived his constitutional right to a jury trial based on his attorney’s closing argument, or lack thereof. Apparently “lamenting on the futility of closing arguments,” according to the 5th Circuit’s opinion, the defense attorney acknowledged he could not argue against his own client’s confession. But does an offhand remark by a defeated lawyer justify the judge’s decision to order the jury to convict a defendant?

In a word, no. The 5th Circuit said that at no time did the defendant change his plea to guilty or otherwise state he wished to waive his right to a jury trial. Even the defendant’s confession on the stand did not constitute such a waiver, the appeals court explained, because a jury could still choose to disregard the confession as not credible. Ultimately, the court said, “no amount of compelling evidence can override the right to have a jury determine his guilt.”

The importance of the right to a jury trial cannot be overstated. That is why if you, or someone you know, is facing serious criminal charges, you need the services of an experienced Illinois criminal defense attorney. Contact the Law Offices of Hal M. Garfinkel LLC, Chicago Criminal Defense Attorney today if you require assistance.

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