June 20, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Conviction Stands Despite Jury’s Lack of Instruction on “Discharge” of Firearm

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Mann on Monday, May 18, 2015.

Clay Mann threw a firework into a neighbor’s bonfire at the neighbor’s peaceful gathering on an Indian reservation, and when members of the gathering approached the fenceline to confront Mann, he shot nine times, killing one man and grievously wounding one other man and the neighbor. For these acts, he was indicted on eight counts by a federal grand jury. Two weeks after the jury’s verdict, Mann filed a “motion to arrest judgment” based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Alleyne v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2151 (2013), arguing that his conviction on Count 5 (a firearms offense based on the assault of the neighbor under § 924(c)) must be vacated because the jury did not find “discharge” of a firearm beyond a reasonable doubt. The district court conducted a plain error inquiry and determined it had erred by failing to instruct the jury on the element of discharging the firearm and the error was plain. The district court, however, found the error had not prejudiced Mann, because he had never contested that he fired shots. The district court sentenced Mann to three concurrent 51 month sentences for the involuntary manslaughter and two assault convictions, and a consecutive 120 month sentence for the § 924(c) conviction regarding the assault of the neighbor. Mann appealed.

The Tenth Circuit conducted a plain error review. Mann argued on appeal that the district court constructively amended count 5 of his indictment by not instructing the jury that, to convict, it needed to find beyond a reasonable doubt that he knowingly discharged his firearm in relation to the assault. Finding that the district court properly instructed the jury on the elements of a § 924(c) violation, the Tenth Circuit could discern no error, much less plain error. The Tenth Circuit found that the Alleyne error (failure to instruct the jury that it must find discharge beyond a reasonable doubt) did not qualify Mann for any relief in light of the overwhelming evidence that he discharged a firearm several times during the assault, including Mann’s own FBI interview in which he admitted discharging the firearm. Any error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt in light of this evidence.

The Tenth Circuit likewise concluded Mann could not use the error from the Alleyne analysis on his constructive amendment claim, since he was not required to show constructive amendment for his Alleyne claim. Although the government endorsed Mann’s “shortcut,” the Tenth Circuit did not. Turning to the merits of Mann’s argument, the Tenth Circuit noted the case law on which he relied for his claim of error had been rejected by the Supreme Court. The Tenth Circuit, relying on good case law, found that Mann failed to show any error and rejected his constructive amendment claim.

The district court’s conviction was affirmed.

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