Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Fifty Shades of Gray (not Grey)





"Words are slippery things," begins the First Circuit decision in US v. Gray, issued March 13, 2015. In particular, the word "malice" may be hard to grasp.

This is the Court's clever synopsis: "Former flight attendant Nancy Gray, convicted of providing false information regarding a bomb threat on an airplane, seeks to convince us that she was denied a fundamentally fair trial when her jury was instructed that malice meant 'evil purpose or improper motive.' Because we find that the district court's definition just won't fly, we vacate Gray's conviction and remand this case for a new trial."

The evidence at trial was that Ms. Gray wanted to retaliate against either American Airlines or the ground crew by writing "bomb on board" in the lavatory. The statute Gray was charged under did not define malice; the district court instructed the jury that malice could include acting with "improper motive." The Court's  discussion is more about statutory construction and how to define an undefined statutory term -- whether by common-law or Congressional intent or analogy to similar statutes -- than about the definition of the particular word  "malice." On landing, though, the Court found "improper motive" as outside the definition of malice, that the error was not harmless, and reversed.

-- Melody, with thanks to Paige Nichols

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