Com v. Aikens: Trial Court’s Instruction Gives Insight into Jury’s Findings
18 Pa.C.S. § 6318 criminalizes “Unlawful Contact with a Minor.” One might think of this statute as an inchoate for the entire child-sexual-victimizing portion of the criminal code. If a defendant contacts a child for the purpose of sexual victimization, that contact is sufficient to support a conviction under this statute.
The statute is graded as a 3rd degree felony—unless the crime which the defendant contacted the victim to lure her into is graded worse, in which case that grading controls. So when Markeith Aikens was convicted of contacting a minor for the purpose of securing Involuntary Sexual Deviate Intercourse—a 1st degree felony—Aikens’s conviction was graded as a 1st degree felony.
Aikens’s counsel ultimately appealed this determination on the basis that it could not be clear what Aikens was convicted by the jury of. He was charged with a third-degree crime, a first-degree crime, and Unlawful Contact under § 6318. But the trial court had instructed the jury that the Unlawful Contact required two elements: “First, that [Appellant] was intentionally in contact with a minor—the victim in this case—second, that that contact was for the purpose of engaging in an unlawful act—and in this case, that unlawful act is alleged to be [IDSI], the crime that we just discussed.”
The jury found Aikens not guilty of IDSI, but found him guilty of Unlawful Contact.
Majority by Baer: Trial Court’s Instruction to the Jury Makes it Clear which Substantive Crime Jury Verdict found Defendant was Contacting the Minor to Commit
Justice Max Baer, writing for the 6-0 majority (Justice Mundy did not participate), ruled that the trial court’s (apparently erroneous) instruction made clear what Aikens was actually convicted of. The law presumes that juries follow instructions, no matter how silly this presumption may be in reality, and the jury was instructed that Unlawful Contact could only be satisfied if they found that Aikens had contacted the minor to commit IDSI. Thus, unlike in prior cases which Aikens was relying on, the court did not have to guess at which crime the jury believed Aikens was attempting to commit when he contacted the minor.
Significantly, these concerns about not guessing at the defendant’s underlying crime are not merely statutory, but are constitutional. The Supreme Court of the United States’s Apprendi v. New Jersey held that a jury must find, beyond a reasonable doubt, any aggravating factors necessary to enhance a defendant’s sentence. Thus, unless it can be proved that a jury found the
“aggravating factor” of a heightened underlying crime, the lower standard of grading (and punishment) must prevail.
Here, the trial court’s instructions made clear the underlying crime for which defendant was being convicted. Our Supreme Court rejected defendant’s arguments (and the Commonwealth’s responses) regarding inconsistent verdicts in this case. There was no inconsistent verdict, the Court found. “Rather, the jury’s verdicts merely indicate that Appellant did not actually commit IDSI with respect to the minor victim, but did unlawfully contact the minor victim for purposes of engaging in IDSI.”
Conclusion: Clear case, but quandary for defense counsel
This case appears to be straight-forward, and correctly decided. But it presents an interesting quandary for a defense attorney in a case like this. The trial court’s jury instruction favored the defendant initially. After all, the trial court should have thrown a wider net: “You can convict the defendant of Unlawful Contact if you think he contacted the victim for the third-degree crime or the first-degree crime.” But the narrower net comes back to bite in this case, because it is clear the Defendant contacted the minor for the worse crime, and thus, that he must face the higher penalties of first-degree grading. Defense counsel in future cases may have to strategically navigate between accepting the narrower net of the trial’s instructions or the higher likelihood of ambiguity that would help avoid higher grading for Unlawful Contact.