Defendants crawled through a window and bar to escape federal prison. They were all recaptured after being at large from a month to three months, depending on the defendant. Defendants claim that while they were in jail they were subject to horrible conditions, including frequent fires, and threats of beating or death. The evidence suggests that other inmates and sometimes security guards set fire to trash, bedding, and other objects and threw the objects into the defendants’ cell blocks. Guards were also said to have beaten defendants and threatened to kill.
At trial defendants claims that the conditions of the jail adduced duress. Each defendant was convicted at trial. Court of appeals reversed the convictions, holding that “the District Court had improperly precluded consideration by the respective juries of respondents’ tendered evidence.” Trial court did not submit a jury instruction of duress. The trial court said that in order to claim duress the defendants had to display evidence that they surrendered once free from the jail.
“Duress excuses criminal conduct where the actor was under an unlawful threat of imminent death or serious bodily injury, which threat caused the actor to engage in conduct violating the literal terms of the criminal law.”
Whether there was sufficient evidence to constitute duress for a submission to the jury.
No, reversed. Modern cases blur the line between duress and necessity. You can now claim duress if you act “under threats or conditions that a person of ordinary firmness would have been unable to resist or if he reasonably believed that criminal action was necessary to avoid a harm more serious than that sought to be prevented by the statute defining the offense.” The law is, however, that if there was a reasonable alternative to breaking the law, defendants must have undertook that choice. If there was “a chance both to refuse to do the criminal act and also to avoid the threatened harm” the defense of duress will fail. An escapee must offer evidence for his initial escape and his continued departure to have the defense of duress. Even if defendant fled to avoid the threats claim, their continued absence is not an element of the duress and they must present evidence of their return to custody because the initial element of duress had subsided.
The defendants’ decision not to return is not conclusive as to their inability to claim duress or escape due to necessity. It could have been part and parcel of their desire not to return to the same prison and endure the same atrocities that they previously endured. It is for the jury to decide their reasons for not returning. The defendants’ were likely not provided a place of confinement that had minimal safety standards and, as such, evidence of the conditions of the jail should have been submitted to the jury.