This blog posting is part II of our analysis of U.S. v. Chi Mak. Part I can be read here.

The Ninth Circuit also disposed of Mak’s claims about jury instructions and deliberation on willfulness, the requisite intent that must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal prosecutions of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA). The relevant case law in the matter presumably favors the defense.

Accordingly, every criminal defendant has a constitutional right to a “meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense.” California v. Trombetta, 467 U.S. 479, 485 (1984); see also United States v. Stever, 603 F.3d 747, 755 (9th Cir.2010) (grounding right to a meaningful defense in the Fifth and Sixth Amendments). An accused can defend against a charge that requires the Government to prove willfulness by presenting evidence that he did not voluntarily or intentionally violate a known legal duty. Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192, 202–03 (1991).

Also favoring the defense is the fact that circumstantial evidence can be probative of the lack of criminal intent. See United States v. Salameh, 152, F.3d 88, 143 (2d Cir. 1998). Moreover, many of the Circuit Courts of Appeals have held that a criminal defendant has the right to introduce evidence that is not directly relevant to an element of the offense where that evidence might tend to negate the existence of an element of the offense, such as intent or willfulness. United States v. Hurn 368 F.3d 1359, 1364-65 (11th Cir. 2004).

Thus, Mak’s contention that he was unaware of the fact that the “technical data” he was sharing with others was not in the “public domain” would seem to be a constitutionally protected defense. Such a defense would clearly demonstrate that he did not intentionally violate a known legal duty. In fact, Mak introduced legally acceptable circumstantial evidence in the form of expert witnesses demonstrating that he did not know the information was “technical data” and not in the “public domain.” Unfortunately, the court’s jury instructions completely stripped this defense of its persuasiveness. So instead of having the jury deliberate the matter, the court determined the issue for them.

In its jury instructions the court stated the following in number 16:

“You are instructed that the information in the Solid State document and the Q.E.D. document is required for the design, development, production, manufacture, assembly, operation, testing, or modification of defense articles. You must accept this fact as true, regardless of whether you heard any witness testify to the contrary.”

And the following from instructions 20 and 23:

That the government was not required to prove that “the defendant had read, was aware of, or had consulted the specific regulations governing his activities,” and that in “making a determination of whether the defendant had the requisite intent, [the jury] should consider the totality of all relevant circumstances.”

The contention on appeal is that the trial court wrongfully rejected Mak’s recommended jury instruction on willfulness, an instruction that would have given the jury a realistic opportunity to deliberate willfulness with respect to the “public domain” determination it was asked to consider:

“Information which is in the public domain does not constitute technical data and therefore is not subject to the export controls of the United States Munitions List. Even if you determine that any of the items at issue in Counts two, three or four were not in the Public Domain, you the jury must consider whether Mr. Chi Mak believed the items were in the Public Domain in order to determine whether he willfully and knowingly exported defense articles.”

With instruction 16 the trial court shifted the entire debate away from the content of the “technical data” because the court judicially recognized that fact in favor of the Government. The instruction caused even more harm to the defense because it told the jury to totally disregard Mak’s expert witnesses on the issue of technical data and only focus on the whether the information was in the public domain. The cumulative impact of the court’s instructions effectively counseled the jury to disbelieve Mak’s lack of intent, at least on the premise that he did not know the information was “technical data.”

Due to the court’s instructions, the only factual issue left for the jury to deliberate upon was whether the information was in the “public domain.” Although the court’s instructions specifically counsel the jury to disregard a significant part of Mak’s constitutionally recognized willfulness defense, there is no accompanying instruction highlighting for the jury that it could still apply the willfulness defense to the issue of whether the information was in the “public domain.” This harm could have easily been remedied by including Mak’s recommended instructions.

Alas, the only instruction the Ninth Circuit relied upon to dispose of Mak’s claim was the broad catch-all instruction that the jury “should consider the totality of all relevant circumstances.” This, in the Ninth Circuit’s opinion, was enough to undo the severely limiting instructions that harmed the defense in the first place. Sadly, the court seems comfortable with the fact that the jury may have never even fathomed to deliberate upon Mak’s willfulness defense in the context of the “public domain” issue, a limitation of Mak’s constitutionally recognized defense created by the court itself.

The author of this blog is Erich Ferrari, an attorney specializing in Federal Criminal Defense matters. If you have any questions please contact him at 202-280-6370 or

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