United States v. Johnny Benjamin, Jr. (11th Cir. May 2020)

The Federal Docket

May 11, 2020

Drug Offenses/Death Counts – Sufficient evidence existed to show defendant was but-for cause of victim’s death where co-conspirators testified against him and law enforcement found pill press and other equipment at defendant’s house

Drug Offenses/Controlled Substance Analogues – The Court retained subject matter jurisdiction despite defendant’s argument that substance at issue was not illegal analogue, as this was a defense and not a jurisdictional issue.

Drug Offenses/Controlled Substance Analogues – The Court did not err in not instructing the jury that the defendant knew the substance was a controlled substance analogue where the instructions sufficiently informed the jury that the defendant could be convicted if he knew the identity of the substance he possessed, regardless of its legal status.

Jury Misconduct – District court did not abuse its discretion in declining to investigate juror misconduct based on juror considering list of “Do’s and Don’ts of Jury Deliberations” as defendant failed to show evidence of extrinsic influence overcoming the presumption of jury impartiality.

Dr. Johnny Benjamin was convicted of distributing furanyl fentanyl, a fentanyl analogue, through two co-defendants. Specifically, Dr. Benjamin was ordering furanyl fentanyl from China and trying to manufacture counterfeit oxycodone. One of the co-defendants sold these pills to a woman who later overdosed and died. The two co-defendants pleaded guilty and cooperated, and Dr. Benjamin was convicted after a jury trial.

On appeal, Dr. Benjamin raised several claims. First, the Court held there was sufficient evidence that Dr. Benjamin was the but-for cause of the woman’s death based on the testimony of experts, the co-defendants’ direct testimony that they got the pills from him and knew he was producing counterfeit pills, and circumstantial evidence including pill presses and materials later found at Dr. Benjamin’s house. The Court added that the alcohol and xanax in the woman’s system did not detract from the furanyl fentanyl being a but-for cause of her death because those substances would not have been sufficient to cause death without the addition of the analogue. Sufficient evidence of but-for causation exists, the Court explained, where a controlled substance is the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

The Court then rejected Dr. Benjamin’s argument that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the furanyl fentanyl was not a controlled substance analogue and, thus, the Government failed to allege a crime. The Court countered that Dr. Benjamin had not raised a jurisdictional claim but rather “no more than the claim that he was not guilty of the offenses charged” since, according to Dr. Benjamin, furanyl fentanyl was not a controlled substance analogue.

The Court also affirmed the trial court’s jury instructions. Dr. Benjamin had argued that the court failed to instruct the jury that he had to have knowledge that the furanyl fentanyl was a controlled substance analogue. The Court held that there was no error, however, where the instructions included language requiring “knowing” and “willful” conduct in regards to the furanyl fentanyl, and the Supreme Court’s holding in McFadden established two alternative scienter requirements regarding analogues– 1) the defendant must know the substance is a controlled substance analogue, or 2) the defendant knows “the specific controlled substance analogue he is dealing with, even if he did not know its legal status as an analogue.”

Dr. Benjamin also challenged the district court’s refusal to investigate juror misconduct after a document was found in the deliberation room listing the “Do’s and Don’ts of Jury Deliberations.” The Court affirmed, holding that the defendant had failed to make a showing rebutting the presumption of impartial deliberations.

On Appeal from the Southern District of Florida

Opinion by Marcus, joined by E. Carnes and Luck

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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