Friday, May 16, 2014

Even if Defendant Admits Guilt on Stand, the Jury—Not the Judge—Decides Guilt

Against his attorney’s advice, Salazar took the stand during his trial on multiple drug and gun violations and confessed to all of the crimes charged.  Due to the confession, the trial judge believed no factual issue remained for the jury and instructed the jury “to go back and find the Defendant guilty.”  The panel finds that Salazar’s confession did not change his plea of not guilty and that the court’s instruction deprived Salazar of his Sixth Amendment right for a jury to decide his guilt or innocence. 
“[T]he Sixth Amendment prohibits the court from directing a guilty verdict,” even for “obviously guilty” defendants.  “A defendant’s confession merely amounts to more, albeit compelling, evidence against him.  But no amount of compelling evidence can override the right to have a jury determine his guilt.”
The attorney’s theory of defense was that Salazar withdrew from the conspiracy before certain overt acts were committed.  Salazar’s testimony, however, contradicted that theory. On appeal, Salazar also challenges the judge’s denial of his request to instruct the jury on withdrawal.  The panel finds that the district court did not err in this regard since, per his own testimony, Salazar did not attempt to withdraw until after several overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracies had occurred. 
The judgment of conviction is vacated and remanded for further proceedings.

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