Armstrong trial outcome could hinge on jury instructions

The basic facts are not in dispute as state Rep. Joe Armstrong’s trial begins Tuesday in U.S. District Court at Knoxville, reports Jamie Satterfield, and the outcome could hinge on what the judge decides to do with preliminary motions involving jury instructions.

Armstrong has never denied in any court record that he voted for a cigarette tax stamp hike and set out to prosper from it by getting a wholesaler to buy him some at the current price and then sell them when the increase takes effect. It is not illegal. He’s not charged with any crime for making a profit off his vote.

The real fight is over whether he agreed with his accountant to hide that profit from the IRS and then signed a tax return knowing it was a lie. It is those crimes — conspiracy to defraud the federal government and tax evasion — of which Armstrong is accused, nothing more.

…The key, then, is whether Armstrong was a “willing” partner. If (Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles) Atchley’s proposed jury instructions are allowed after a hearing Monday before Senior Judge Thomas Phillips, jurors will be told Armstrong can still be guilty if he “deliberately closed his eyes to what would otherwise have been obvious to him.”

The message the government wants to send jurors is everyone knows you have to pay taxes on a profit.

“No one can avoid responsibility for a crime by deliberately ignoring what is obvious,” the proposed instructions state.

(Defense attorney Gregory) Isaacs, on the other hand, is pushing for legal instructions more sympathetic to his client’s defense that he relied on accountant Stivers to act lawfully and remained ignorant of any illegality even when he should have known better.

“The defendant’s conduct was not willful if he acted through negligence — even gross negligence — mistake, or accident, or due to a good-faith belief or misunderstanding as to the law,” Isaacs’ proposed instructions stated. “Unlike many criminal offenses, ignorance or a good faith misunderstanding of the law constitutes a defense to a criminal tax offense.”

The message the defense wants to send jurors is not all of us can be doctors, lawyers or accountants, so we rely on those folks to know what’s right and we trust them to do it.