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Media Alerts - United States of America v. Jace Edwards - Third Circuit
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July 20, 2015
  United States of America v. Jace Edwards - Third Circuit
Headline: Third Circuit Holds Prosecutor's Implicit Statements of Guilt by Silence at Trial Violation of Fifth Amendment

Area of Law: Fifth Amendment

Issues Presented: While prosecuting a criminal trial, can the Government make statements implying a defendant is guilty by coordinating the facts of the case and the defendant's Fifth Amendment assertion?

Brief Summary:

Jace Edwards was convicted of attempted possession with intent to distribute cocaine. As a part of a police-operated controlled delivery, Edwards picked up a suitcase containing apparent cocaine. After his Miranda rights were issued, Edwards invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. During the trial, the Government repeatedly expounded his silence as guilt. The Government argued that the error was harmless. The Third Circuit disagreed, holding that the Government's closing argument and the jury instructions failed to meet the burden of protecting Edward's Fifth Amendment right by drawing direct inference of guilt by silence. The Court vacated the District Court's verdict and remanded the case for a new trial.

Extended Summary:

Defendant Jace Edwards was convicted of attempted possession with intent to distribute cocaine. Edwards argued that the Government violated his Fifth Amendment rights by repeatedly referring to Edward's post-arrest, post-Miranda silence in the Government's case-in-chief and during closing arguments. The Third Circuit agreed with Edwards, and it vacated Edward's conviction and remanded the case for a new trial.

On October 23, 2011, Edwards was arrested while in the possession of a suitcase containing several packages of cocaine. Edwards had acquired the suitcase from a hotel room occupied by Thomas Bruce. Bruce had been arrested the previous day with cocaine and agreed to participate in a controlled delivery. Edwards testified that he identified himself as "Dred," stated that he was there for six kilograms of cocaine, spoke to Bruce's co-conspirator by phone prior to arrival, and was shown the kilograms of apparent cocaine in Bruce's suitcase. Edwards also testified that he received two calls from an associate asking him to move an individual from the motel to a different motel. Edwards claimed that he left the motel room with the suitcase without observing the suitcase's contents and without any knowledge of the drugs.

Law enforcement agents issued Edwards a Miranda warning and opened Bruce's suitcase to show Edwards the contents. Edwards did not respond and invoked his right to remain silent. At trial, the Government repeatedly sought to use Edward's silence as substantive proof of guilt. The Government argued that any such error as a result of its trial strategy was harmless.

The Third Circuit held that the Government failed to meet its burden, as the references to Edwards' silence during the trial were not simply made in passing. The credibility of Edwards' story was crucial to the outcome of the case, and it was undermined by the Government's insistence that he would have waived his Fifth Amendment rights if he did not know what the suitcase contained. The Third Circuit, thus, held that the violation of Edwards' Fifth Amendment rights was not harmless, and it vacated his conviction and remanded the matter for a new trial.

Find the full opinion at:

Panel: McKee, Chief Judge, Smith and Scirica, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: May 20, 2015

Date of Issued Opinion: July 6, 2015

Docket Number: No. 14-4088

Decided: Judgment Vacated and Remanded

Case Alert Author: Jessica Wood

Counsel: Nelson L. Jones, Ronald Sharpe, Office of United States Attorney for Appellee; Alvin E. Entin for Appellant

Author of Opinion: Smith, Circuit Judge

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Mary E. Levy

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 07/20/2015 12:29 PM     3rd Circuit  

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