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United States v. Janis

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 3, 2018

United States of America Plaintiff- Appellee
v.
Darrell Janis Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: May 16, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the District of South Dakota - Rapid City

          Before BENTON, KELLY, and STRAS, Circuit Judges.

          BENTON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         A jury found Darrell E. Janis guilty of two counts of abusive sexual contact-one under 18 U.S.C. § 2244(a)(1) and the other under § 2244(a)(3). Janis appeals his conviction, raising a jury instruction issue and an evidentiary issue. Having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, this court affirms.

         I.

         Janis proposed a jury instruction he claims would have "inform[ed] the jury how it should deal with inferences arising from the evidence that are equally reasonable." The proposed instruction said:

Because of the presumption of innocence, if after considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution two inferences are equally reasonable, then the presumption of innocence has not been overcome. If the prosecution's evidence is such that a reasonable jury could find the accused to be innocent, then by definition there is reasonable doubt of guilt. When an equal or nearly equal theory of guilty and a theory of innocence is supported by the evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the respective verdict, you, as a reasonable jury, must necessarily entertain a reasonable double [sic] and find the accused not guilty.

         The district court[1] rejected the instruction:

It concerned me; it's almost a civil instruction on balancing, very much balancing on proof beyond a reasonable doubt and the presumption of innocence, and so I am going to reject that instruction. . . . I think that's a confusing instruction for jurors. If two inferences are equally reasonable, I mean, the presumption of innocence is contrary to that.

         This court analyzes "whether the instructions, taken as a whole and viewed in light of the evidence and applicable law, fairly and adequately submitted the issues in the case to the jury." United States v. Benton, 890 F.3d 697, 714 (8th Cir. 2018) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). "A challenge to a jury instruction is reviewed for an abuse of discretion." United States v. Stanley, 891 F.3d 735, 739 (8th Cir. 2018) (citation omitted). But "if a party fails to object at trial, this court reviews only for plain error." Id. (citation omitted); see also United States v. Kirkie, 261 F.3d 761, 770 (8th Cir. 2001) ("In order to preserve the issue of whether a particular jury instruction should or should not have been issued, an attorney must make a timely objection, explaining the grounds upon which the instruction should or should not issue.").

         Janis did not object to the district court's refusal to give the proposed instruction. Plain-error review applies. See United States v. Tobacco, 428 F.3d 1148, 1150 (8th Cir. 2005) ("Tobacco asserts the issue is preserved simply because he submitted a proposed jury instruction which the district court did not include in its proposed jury instructions prior to trial. This assertion is without merit."). "Under plain error, there must be an 'error' that is 'plain' and that 'affects substantial rights.' This court has the discretion to decide whether to correct the forfeited error, and does so only when the error seriously affects the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings." Stanley, 891 F.3d at 739 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

         According to Janis, "the district court's denial of his proposed instruction on inferences . . . allowed the jury to speculate about his guilt if it found competing inferences of equal evidential weight existed." He focuses on two decisions from this court. One says: "Where the government's evidence is equally as strong to infer innocence of the crime charged, as it is to infer guilt, we are not dealing in the realm of credibility, but legal sufficiency and a court has the duty to direct an acquittal." United States v. Jones, 418 F.2d 818, 826 (8th Cir. 1969). The other says:

It is true that the government is entitled to the benefit of all reasonable inferences to be drawn from the evidence. However, where the government's evidence is equally strong to infer innocence of the crime charged as it is to infer guilt, the verdict must be ...

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