Consequences of Erroneous Jury Readback Instruction

In United States v. White, 23 F.3d 404, 1994 WL 177280 (4th Cir. 1994) (unpublished), the Fourth Circuit concluded that an erroneous read-back instruction was harmless based upon its observations that the appellant's trial lasted just one-and-one-half days, and he was the only defendant; the announcement prohibiting read-backs was made after all the evidence was presented; four incriminating witnesses told consistent stories; the defense was not based on fine distinctions; and the appellant "pointed to nothing, either in general or in particular, that might have generated confusion among the jurors." White, 23 F.3d 404. The Fourth Circuit explained: Of course we have no way of knowing whether the jury in White's trial would have asked for a read-back of any testimony, just as a reviewing court can never know with absolute certainty what weight a jury put on an erroneously admitted piece of evidence. It is difficult, and no doubt sometimes nigh impossible, to gauge the effect on a jury's verdict of, say, a coerced confession, but we are bound to do so when presented with such a case. The difficulty of applying the harmless error test in some (or even most) cases, however, is an inadequate basis for declaring a per se rule for all cases. Id.