Does a Jury Have to Unanimously Agree on How a Defendant Committed the Crime?

October 29th, 2020 by Tad Nelson in White Collar Crime

When you are tried for any federal or state crime in Texas, the jury must unanimously agree that you are guilty. This means the jurors must be unanimous with respect to each element of the alleged offense. However, that does not necessarily mean the jurors all have to agree as to the underlying facts.

In a 1999 decision, Richardson v. United States, the United States Supreme Court observed that at least in federal criminal cases, the jury “need not always decide unanimously which of several possible sets of underlying brute facts make up a particular element, say, which of several possible means the defendant used to commit an element of the crime.” The Court offered robbery as an example. The jurors must all agree the defendant used a “threat of force,” as that is an element of robbery, but they could theoretically disagree as to the means by which the threat was made–i.e., did the defendant use a gun or a knife.

Fifth Circuit Upholds Conviction in Workers’ Compensation Fraud Case

The same principles apply in non-violent white collar criminal cases. But here too, it is important to understand the critical distinction between an “element” and a “fact” related to a particular criminal offense. In many cases, the wording of a particular statute or law will help a court in distinguishing one from the other.

Take this recent decision from the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, United States v. Coffman. This case involves a defendant tried and convicted of workers’ compensation fraud. At trial, federal prosecutors introduced evidence showing the defendant, a former mail carrier, had suffered a legitimate work-related injury. But the defendant later “claimed travel reimbursement for nonexistent doctor appointments and for treatment unrelated to her covered back injury,” according to the Fifth Circuit’s recounting of the evidence.

money and calculator

Prosecutors charged the defendant under a federal statute that makes it a crime to “embezzle, steal, or knowingly convert” money belonging to the government. The jury unanimously agreed the prosecution proved this was the case. But on appeal, the defendant maintained it was unclear whether the jury agreed she “stole” or whether she “embezzled,” and that the failure to specify one or the other amounted to a non-unanimous verdict.

The Fifth Circuit disagreed and upheld the defendant’s conviction. While the language of the statute itself “does not specify whether the verbs [“embezzled” and “stole”] constitute elements or means of committing the offense,“ the appellate court said they should be treated as “means of committing the offense, not elements.” In other words, whether the defendant embezzled or stole the workers’ compensation benefits, that was simply two different ways of committing the same offense. And the jury did not have to unanimously agree as to which method was actually used.

Speak with a Houston White Collar Criminal Defense Lawyer Today

White-collar criminal cases often involve highly technical interpretations of complex federal statutes. That is why if you are charged with such an offense you need to work with an experienced Houston criminal defense attorney. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today if you need immediate legal representation in League City, Houston, or Galveston.


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