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United States v. Barrett


filed: March 31, 1989.


Appeal From the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Criminal No. 87-00193-01 - Scranton.

Seitz, Stapleton and Cowen, Circuit Judges.

Author: Seitz


SEITZ, Circuit Judge

Defendant, James Barrett, appeals from sentences imposed after conviction by a jury on two counts. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

At the time of the events leading to the conviction we now review, the defendant was serving a sentence at the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania for a felony conviction for an offense against the United States as well as for a state conviction. Defendant and his then cellmate, Stanley Ulatowsky (Ulatowsky), were named as defendants in a multicount indictment containing conspiracy and substantive counts involving the possession of contraband in prison to aid in a prison escape attempt. Putting aside for the moment defendant's claim of prosecutorial misconduct, we address his attack on his conviction on Counts I and IX.

Count I charged defendant and Ulatowsky under 18 U.S.C. § 371 with conspiracy to commit offenses against the United States and proceeded to identify five object offenses. The punishment for conspiracy is a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than five years unless the object offense is a misdemeanor, in which case the punishment is limited to the maximum punishment provided for that object offense. 18 U.S.C. § 371. Two of the object offenses listed in the indictment are felonies -- attempt to escape in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 751(a) and to possess false identification in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1028(a)(1) and (6). A third object was to possess "prohibited objects" in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1791 (a)(2) and 1791 (c)(1)(B),(E) and (F). This offense could be punishable as a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the nature of the prohibited objects. The fourth and fifth objects are misdemeanors - to cut cell bars in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1361 and to possess stolen goods in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 641.

Count IX charged defendant with the substantive felony crime under 18 U.S.C. §§ 1791(a)(2) and 1791(c)(1)(B) of possession on June 16, 1987 of a prohibited object, a cutting instrument, designed or intended to facilitate escape.

Ulatowsky entered a guilty plea and defendant proceeded to trial. A narration of the proceedings subsequent to the close of the evidence is important to an understanding of defendant's claims of trial error.

While the jury was deliberating the district court called the jury back and, at the defendant's behest and over the government's objection, gave a "lesser included offense" instruction, which it had earlier refused to give. On Count I (conspiracy) it instructed the jury that "the charge in count one, conspiracy to commit felonies or misdemeanors, necessarily includes the lesser offense of conspiracy to commit misdemeanors." We note that the indictment does not explicitly charge a conspiracy to commit felonies or misdemeanors.

The judge also instructed the jury as to Count IX that the charge of possession of a cutting instrument "necessarily includes the lesser offense of possessing or obtaining prohibited objects that threaten the order, discipline or security of a prison or threaten the life, health or safety of an individual." 18 U.S.C. §§ 1791(a)(2) and 1791(c)(1)(F). This "lesser offense" is punishable as a misdemeanor.

The jury was given verdict slips to record its verdicts. The form, prepared by the judge, merely provided for a place to check guilty or not guilty. While the jury was still deliberating and after the lesser included offense charge was given, defense counsel requested the judge to give the jury more specific verdict slips that would indicate a third alternative, guilty of a lesser included offense as to Counts I and IX. The court denied the request even though, at the court's suggestion, defense counsel submitted an appropriate form.

The jury returned a general verdict of guilty on Count I (conspiracy) and on Count IX (possession of a prohibited object, etc.). In consequence, the court could not know at that point whether to sentence defendant for felonies or misdemeanors. It thereafter required the jury to answer special interrogatories.

Based on the jury's answers the court sentenced defendant on both counts under the pertinent felony provisions. This appeal followed.


The defendant first contends that the district court erred in not modifying the jury verdict slip so as to provide the jury with a third alternative of guilty to a lesser included offense--conspiracy to commit misdemeanors. The government's position on Count I is not entirely clear. We interpret it as proceeding on the assumption that a conspiracy to commit a felony may, in a proper case, support a lesser included offense charge of conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor. The government argues that the special interrogatories may be used to assist in identifying the offense for which defendant was convicted. Our review is plenary.

The district court instructed the jury, in essence, that it might find any one of three possible verdicts: guilty as charged, guilty of a lesser included offense or not guilty. However, the verdict slip provided only for places to mark guilty or not guilty. It did this despite defendant's request that it also provide for a vote on the charged lesser included offense. Thus, when the jury marked guilty on the verdict slip, it could mean that it was convicting defendant either on the charged offense or the lesser included offense. The ambiguity in the verdict was thus manifest and constituted reversible error. As Devitt and Blackmar state in § 18.05 of their work entitled Federal Jury Practice and Instructions:

When [a] jury is instructed on a lesser-included offense and it returns a general verdict of guilty, the verdict is fatally ambiguous and the case will be remanded for new trial. Glenn v. United States, 137 U.S. App. D.C. 120, 137 U.S. App. D.C. 120, 420 F.2d 1323 (1969). This problem can be avoided by furnishing verdict forms to the jury which leave no doubt as to what the jury has determined.

1 E. Devitt and C. Blackmar, Federal Jury Practice and Instructions § 18.05, at 584 (3d ed. 1977).

The government's response seems to be that answers to the special interrogatories may be employed to resolve the ambiguity in the general verdicts. We do not agree. Such use would constitute a manifest invasion of the jury's exclusive deliberative function in arriving at a verdict. Compare United States v. Spock, 416 F.2d 165, 182 (1st Cir. 1969). The use of special interrogatories in some cases to assist in sentencing is to be sharply contrasted with any use of them to clarify an ambiguous verdict.*fn1

We conclude that the conviction and sentence on Count I must be vacated since the general verdict was ambiguous in light of the lesser included offense charge and the form of the verdict slip.


As to the conviction under Count IX charging a felony offense, the government's principal argument is that the requested lesser included offense charge should not have been given because of the insufficiency of the evidence to support such a possible verdict. Even if the government is correct, how can it be known whether the jury nevertheless purported to find defendant guilty of a lesser included offense? The question answers itself. We cannot know and the general verdict is therefore ambiguous. Again, contrary to the government's position, the ambiguity in the verdict cannot be cured by answers to special interrogatories. They, of course, were designed to assist the court in performing its sentencing responsibilities. The verdict and sentence on Count IX cannot stand.

On retrial the district court will be free to determine anew on both counts whether, if requested, a lesser included offense charge is required.


In view of the fact that we will vacate the verdict and sentence under Counts I and IX, and remand for a new trial, we find it unnecessary to address defendant's constitutional attack on the use generally of special interrogatories and the claimed alleged prosecutorial misconduct. Given the rather uneven pace at which this trial unfolded, we think the court and the parties will benefit from a more measured opportunity to process the charges here involved.


The convictions and sentences on Counts I and IX will be vacated and a new trial ordered.

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