Tax Conviction Upheld Despite Two 'Significant' Prosecutor Errors - U.S. Fourth Circuit
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Tax Conviction Upheld Despite Two 'Significant' Prosecutor Errors

Michael Woods is in tax trouble. He allegedly pulled identities and Social Security Numbers off of a computer at his day job (at the Veteran's Administration), and used those identities to claim nonexistent dependents on clients' returns.

Woods, who represented himself and testified on his own behalf, was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 132 months' imprisonment, three years of supervised release, and restitution in the amount of $464,599. He appealed.

Right to Testify is Not Unfettered

Woods first argues that the court's rulings limited his constitutional right to testify on his own behalf and kept him from developing his theories of the case.

He is right. His testimony was limited. District courts have the discretion to limit testimony in order to comply with rules of procedure, to limit admissibility of evidence, and to maintain control over the trial.

The Fourth didn't elucidate every ruling made by the lower court, but did hold that the rulings were proper, as most of the rulings related to Woods' arguing case theories during testimony instead of stating facts.

Prosecutor Can't Call a Witness a Liar

What wasn't proper, however, was the prosecutor's statement during closing:

"So, Mr. Woods was right in the middle of getting these $500 payments for the fake dependents and he lied about it under oath when he testified this morning "

Whoops. It is clearly established law that a prosecutor can't comment on the credibility of a witness. Citing Moore, the court pointed that such statements risk: (1) "improperly suggesting to the jury that the prosecutor's personal opinion has evidentiary weight"; and (2) "improperly inviting the jury to infer that the prosecutor "had access to extra-judicial information, not available to the jury."

Though the prosecutor's statement was plainly erroneous, especially since Woods' case largely depended on his testimony, it was an isolated remark. Also, the sheer weight of the evidence against Woods (copies of checks, the testimony of numerous customers and former employees) outweighs the prejudicial effect of the improper statement.

Character Evidence Jury Instruction

In addition to Woods' testimony, his supervisor at the VA testified positively about Woods' integrity.

On redirect, the prosecutor asked whether, in light of the charges, Woods' integrity had now been called into question. The supervisor agreed.

Finding that the supervisor had equivocated, the District Court declined to give a jury instruction about considering character evidence when determining guilt.

This was another error. The question by the prosecutor assumes guilt in the present case in order to contradict character testimony. Furthermore, it is the jury's duty to weigh character evidence and inconsistencies in testimony - not the judge's. Nonetheless, this also did not amount to reversible error.

Cumulative Effect of Errors

In affirming Woods' conviction, the court stated, "Although these errors are not insignificant, and we strongly caution the government against engaging in such conduct in the future, we cannot conclude that the errors prejudiced Woods' case so as to justify the unusual remedy of reversal based on cumulative error."

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