Duplicity and Unanimity Instructions

United States v. Eaton, decided on April 20, 2015, is an appeal from the conviction of former Barren County (KY) Sheriff Christopher Eaton.  The case stems from the arrest and beating of Billy Stinnett in 2010.  Eaton and three sheriff's deputies were charged with excessive force; Eaton was also charged with witness tampering and obstruction of justice.  Eaton was convicted only of two counts of witness tampering.

The most interesting issue raised on appeal regards whether the trial court erred in failing to give a unanimity instructions as to one of the witness tampering counts.  Eaton argues that the proof at trial left the jury with the ability to find that Eaton had committed witness tampering in one of two ways (lying about excessive force or lying about whether Stinnett had a weapon).  Eaton's trial counsel didn't request such an instruction, so on appeal, Eaton was stuck with plain error review.

The court's decision suggests that even had the error been preserved, Eaton would have lost the review.  The panel reiterated the distinction between jurors being unanimous as to elements and jurors being unanimous as to facts.  Citing Richardson v. United States, the court holds that Eaton's case implicates only the "brute facts" underlying the statutory elements; thus, a unanimity instruction was not required.

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