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United States v. Ramirez-Castillo

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

April 30, 2014

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
SAUL RAMIREZ-CASTILLO, Defendant - Appellant

Argued March 18, 2014.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Beaufort. (9:11-cr-02365-SB-1). Sol Blatt, Jr., Senior District Judge.


Cameron Jane Blazer, SAVAGE LAW FIRM, Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellant.

Robert Nicholas Bianchi, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellee.


William N. Nettles, United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellee.

Before GREGORY, WYNN, and THACKER, Circuit Judges. Vacated and remanded by published opinion. Judge Thacker wrote the opinion, in which Judge Gregory and Judge Wynn joined.


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THACKER, Circuit Judge:

In this appeal, we review the propriety of a prison sentence imposed subsequent to a jury trial in which the jury made two specific factual findings but never returned a guilty verdict. Saul Ramirez-Castillo (" Appellant" ) challenges his conviction and sentence for possession of a prohibited object by a federal inmate. On December 14, 2011, Appellant was charged in a single-count indictment with " knowingly possess[ing] prohibited objects, that is, two homemade weapons," while an inmate at a Federal Correctional Institute in Estill, South Carolina (" FCI Estill" ), in violation of 18 U.S.C. § § 1791(a)(2), (b)(3), and (c). A jury trial was held on September 25, 2012. At the conclusion of the evidence, the district court charged the jury with determining: (1) whether the first object at issue was a " weapon" ; and (2) whether the second object at issue was possessed by Appellant. The jury answered " yes" to each question, but was never asked to determine whether Appellant was " guilty" or " not guilty" of the charged offense. Although the jury never returned a guilty

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verdict, the parties proceeded to sentencing on February 21, 2013. Appellant was sentenced to 33 months' imprisonment, to be served consecutively to his prior undischarged term of imprisonment of 66 months.

Because we conclude the district court violated Appellant's right to have a jury determine his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, we vacate Appellant's conviction and sentence, and we remand the case to the district court.



On November 5, 2011, while Appellant was serving a 66-month sentence for illegal re-entry after deportation at FCI Estill, prison officials conducted two searches that gave rise to the charges in this case. The first search was a pat-down of Appellant's person, during which a prison official found an object, described as " [a] homemade shank, approximately five inches long, with a sharp point," J.A. 33 (" Exhibit 1" ),[1] inside of Appellant's pocket. After discovering Exhibit 1, prison officials conducted a search of Appellant's jail cell and locker. Inside Appellant's locker, prison officials found a nine-and-a-half-inch piece of metal, sharpened to a point on one end (" Exhibit 2" ). Appellant's locker also contained four pairs of shoes, as well as several of Appellant's personal items.

Appellant did not waive his right to a trial by jury, and trial commenced on September 25, 2012. Testifying in his own defense, Appellant admitted to making and possessing Exhibit 1, claiming that he used it as a tool to alter or fix ill-fitting shoes. Further, Appellant identified several pairs of shoes that were recovered from his locker and stated that he had either sewn patches or attached new soles to those shoes. Appellant also testified that he never used Exhibit 1 as a weapon and that he never planned to use it as a weapon. On cross-examination, however, Appellant acknowledged that if he were attacked and his life was in danger, he would use Exhibit 1 to defend himself against such an attack. With respect to Exhibit 2, Appellant acknowledged that, based on its appearance, Exhibit 2 could seriously hurt someone. However, Appellant testified that he had never seen Exhibit 2 before the search nor had he used it for any reason. On cross-examination, Appellant also stated that his locker had a combination lock on it, that no one else had the combination, and that he was the only one who had access to the locker.


Several times during the trial, Appellant's counsel and Government counsel discussed possible jury instructions and verdict forms with the district court. Just before the close of the Government's case, Appellant's counsel summarized for the district court the issues that she believed were contested: " As to the first thing [Exhibit 1], the issue is whether the thing is a weapon. As to the second thing [Exhibit 2], the issue is whether the thing was possessed." J.A. 73. Thus, Appellant's counsel stated, " it may behoove us, notwithstanding the fact that they were indicted in a single count together, to prepare a special verdict form that allows the jury to walk through [the Exhibits] item by item." Id. Government counsel suggested preparing a verdict form that separately listed Exhibit 1 and Exhibit 2 and asked the jury to find Appellant " guilty" or " not guilty" as to each Exhibit. Id. at 74. The district court, however, indicated that it did not " know that that's any different

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from telling the jury that in order to find [Appellant] guilty, . . . they've got to find he had possession of one of these [Exhibits] that they considered to be a weapon." Id. The district court then asked Appellant's counsel, " [d]oes that suit you . . . ?" Id. at 75. Appellant's counsel replied, " [t]hat would be just fine, Your Honor." Id.

During a subsequent discussion about the verdict form, the following exchange occurred:

THE COURT: Ms. Blazer [Appellant's Counsel], as I understand that from [Appellant]'s, really [Appellant]'s own testimony, in so far as possession to Exhibit 1, he admits that?
THE COURT: And so far as the Exhibit 2, [Appellant] admits that that ...

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