The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Wednesday in Smith v. US that it is defendants' burden to prove they had removed themselves from a conspiracy in cases where their departure from the conspiracy happened long enough ago that prosecution would be barred by a statute of limitations. Lawyers for the appellant argued that though their client had been involved in a criminal conspiracy, it should be incumbent on the prosecution to prove that the defendant had remained active in the conspiracy past the time threshold determined by the state's statute of limitations. Delivering the opinion for the unanimous court, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote:
Having joined forces to achieve collectively more evil than he could accomplish alone, Smith tied his fate to that of the group. His individual change of heart (assuming it occurred) could not put the conspiracy genie back in the bottle. We punish him for the havoc wreaked by the unlawful scheme, whether or not he remained actively involved. It is his withdrawal that must be active, and it was his burden to show that.The court affirmed the ruling [opinion, PDF] of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that once the prosecution had proven that the defendants were a part of the conspiracy, the defendants must positively establish that they actively left the conspiracy prior to the date imposed by the statute of limitations.
The court heard oral arguments in this case in November after granting certiorari [JURIST reports] in June. The case involved two individuals who had been sentenced to life in prison for their connections to a large drug ring that has been tied to several murders. The government alleged that the two were members of the drug ring and involved in an ongoing conspiracy to commit a number of crimes with the group. At issue is a jury instruction that allowed jurors to assume that the defendants did not abandon the conspiracy unless the defendants positively demonstrated that this was the case. The jurors convicted the defendants based on the fact that they had been members of the group during a time that was barred by statute of limitations. Because the defendants did not offer sufficient evidence to refute their ongoing participation in the conspiracy, their ongoing participation leading up to the permitted statutory period was assumed.