United States v. Cesar Antonio Becerra (9th Cir. September 2019)

The Federal Docket

October 17, 2019

Jury Instructions – A court must orally instruct the jury as to the elements of the charged offenses, and the failure to do so is structural error.

Cesar Becerra was convicted by a jury of possessing and distributing heroin and meth. At the final pretrial conference, the trial court explained that it would provide a written set of jury instructions to the jurors but would not read the instructions aloud. Neither party objected.

At trial, the judge presented the jurors with a draft of the jury instructions at the beginning of the trial, read aloud a few of the preliminary instructions explaining the role of the jury, and gave the jury a final set of instructions before closing arguments. The judge asked the jurors if they had read the instructions, and each juror answered in the affirmative. At no point did the judge orally define the elements of the charged offenses, explain any of the substantive law involved, or ask the jurors if they fully understood the instructions.

On appeal, the Court held that the trial judge erred by not reading the jury instructions aloud to the jury. Under the plain error standard, the Court found that the trial court’s error was plain in light of Guam v. Marquez, a 9th Circuit opinion holding that trial courts must orally instruct the jury on the elements of the charged offenses. The Court went on to describe the historical importance of the jury and how being orally instructed on the law helps a jury appreciate the gravity of its role.

The Court also held that Marquez was binding in a second way—not only did the trial court err by failing to orally instruct the jury, but this was a “structural error,” meaning harmless error review did not apply. The Court also cited the recent Supreme Court opinion from Weaver v. Massachusetts, where SCOTUS noted that “an error can count as structural even if the error does not lead to fundamental unfairness in every case” and suggested that structural errors are found where “the effects of the error are simply too hard to measure.” The Court added for good measure that, even if Marquez was not binding, it would have found structural error regardless, since not delivering oral instructions met the elements of structural error review in that the error deprived the defendant of “basic protections,” the error’s effect was “unquantifiable,” and the error implicated the public’s interest in hearing the judge orally instruct the jury.

Dissenting, Judge Graber would have held that the error was “clearly harmless in this particular case” since the judge “orally instructed the jury to read” the written instructions and the jury confirmed, “individually and in open court,” that they had read them. Additionally, the evidence against the defendant was overwhelming. The dissent disagreed with the majority’s reading of Weaver v. Massachusetts and argued that a structural error must be an error that affects substantial rights, folding the structural error analysis into plain error review. And even if it was a structural error, Judge Graber maintained, the Court should have exercised its discretion to affirm the judgment anyway.

Appeal from the District of Oregon

Opinion by Berzon, joined by Robreno (by designation from the E.D. Pa.)

Dissent by Graber

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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