The U.S. Supreme Court held Monday that a shipping executive sentenced to five years in prison for hacking his former employer can’t parlay erroneous jury instructions into an acquittal, rejecting his claim that those instructions meant the federal government had to meet a higher burden of proof than required by law.
In a unanimous decision, the high court rejected former Exel Transportation Services Inc. CEO Michael Musacchio’s claim that prosecutors had to abide by the incorrect instructions, which stated that a guilty verdict rested on two prongs of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act rather than just one.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion, which held that the executive had to held accountable to the letter of the law, not faulty instructions.
“The government’s failure to introduce evidence of an additional element does not implicate these principles, and its failure to object to a heightened jury instruction does not affect sufficiency review,” the court said. “Because Musacchio does not dispute that he was properly charged with conspiracy to obtain unauthorized access or that the evidence was sufficient to convict him of the charged crime, the Fifth Circuit correctly rejected his sufficiency challenge.”
Musacchio left Exel in 2004 to start his own shipping company, Total Transportation Services Inc., but a forensics firm hired by Exel hired discovered that Musacchio had accessed confidential information after he left, according to court filings.
Exel settled its civil claims against its ex-CEO for $10 million, but the federal government then indicted Musacchio in 2010, leading to a Texas federal jury’s guilty verdict against Musacchio three years later.
The jury convicted him on three counts under the CFAA, but part of its instructions stated that a conviction rested on proof that he made unauthorized access to Exel’s information “and” that he exceeded his authorized access.
Musacchio appealed to the Fifth Circuit, arguing that the government didn’t provide evidence sufficient to satisfy both prongs, but the court of appeals affirmed, stating that the substitution of “and” for “or” was an “obvious clerical error.”
After the Supreme Court agreed in June to review the Fifth Circuit’s decision, Musacchio said the jurors didn’t know the instructions they received were wrong and convicted him without enough proof to meet the standard they believed to be correct.
On Monday, the Supreme Court also rejected Musacchio’s attempt to show that the government’s allegations were barred by a five-year statute of limitations, finding that he could not raise that defense for the first time on appeal.
“When a defendant fails to press a limitations defense, the defense does not become part of the case and the Government does not otherwise have the burden of proving that it filed a timely indictment,” Justice Thomas wrote. “When a defendant does not press the defense, then, there is no error for an appellate court to correct—and certainly no plain error.”
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