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The statutory term "results from" under 21 U.S.C.S. § 841(b)(1) requires the government to prove that ingestion of the defendant's drugs was a "but for" cause of the deaths and the bodily injury. The death or injury need not have been foreseeable, but the government at least must prove that the death or injury would not have occurred had the drugs not been ingested: "but for" (had it not been for) the ingestion, no injury. That is the minimum concept of cause.
A jury convicted the defendants of conspiracy to burglarize pharmacies, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2118(b), (d), and to distribute controlled substances (including morphine, methadone, oxycodone, fentanyl, alprazolam, cocaine, and hydrocodone), the use of which resulted in death or serious bodily injury, 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(C), 846--specifically, four deaths, plus a serious bodily injury to a fifth user of the defendants' drugs. The defendants were sentenced to life in prison, as authorized by section 841(b)(1)(C). The principal issue presented by the appeals concerned the wording of the jury instruction explaining the meaning of the statutory term "results from." The exact statutory language is "if death or serious bodily injury results from the use of such substance [the defendant] shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than twenty years or more than life." The instruction began by stating that the jury had "to determine whether the United States has established, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the [victims] died, or suffered serious bodily injury, as a result of ingesting a controlled substance or controlled substances distributed by the defendants or by a defendant." But then it added that the controlled substances distributed by the defendants had to have been "a factor that resulted in death or serious bodily injury," and that although they "need not be the primary cause of death or serious bodily injury" they "must at least have played a part in the death or in the serious bodily injury." The defendants' lawyer asked that the addition, suggested by the prosecutor, be stricken as a confusing gloss on "results from." The district judge refused.
Did the trial court err with its wording of the jury instruction explaining the meaning of the statutory term "results from"?
Defendants' objection to the trial court's instruction was well-taken because the terms that the trial court added to the instruction made the meaning of "resulted from" less clear rather than clearer. The court particularly did not understand what a jury would make of the terms "primary cause" and "played a part." The court held that the error was not harmless because the evidence regarding the cause of the serious injury of one victim and the deaths of the others, though strong enough to justify a verdict of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, was not conclusive. For guidance on remand, the court addressed defendants' challenges to the trial court's other rulings. Because the evidentiary rulings did not amount to reversible error, the court directed that the new trial be limited to the "results from" charge.