The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a Manilla, Indiana, man’s convictions of making false statements in connection with the purchase of a firearm, holding the trial court violated his due process right to present a mistake-of-fact defense.
James Bowling was charged with felony strangulation and three misdemeanors in December 2011. His trial was continued in July 2012 after the Rush County prosecutor offered a plea agreement in which Bowling would plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge in exchange for the other charges being dropped. Bowling pleaded guilty in October 2012.
But prior to pleading guilty and while the charges were pending, Bowling attempted to purchase a firearm from a dealer in Rushville. On the federally required form, he answered no to the question, “Are you under indictment or information in any court for a felony for any crime, for which the judge could imprison you for more than one year?” He also provided his office address, which is the address on his driver’s license, as his residence.
These two answers led to an indictment on the two making false statement charges. At his jury trial, Rush County Prosecutor Phillip Caviness testified for the government that he drafted the state charging information against Bowling, which included the felony charge. When Bowling attempted to ask Caviness about the plea offer to dismiss the felony count, the government objected. The jury never heard testimony about the plea offer.
Bowling asked for his two convictions to be overturned because he claimed he was entitled to present a mistake-of-fact defense. For him to be convicted, the government has to prove that he knowingly made the false statement. Bowling wanted to show the jury that he believed at the time he attempted to buy the gun that he no longer was under a felony information based on the plea agreement.
“Among Bowling’s due process rights is the right to cross-examine the county prosecutor (or call him as a defense witness) in order to obtain a testimony concerning any facts relevant to the case,” Judge Daniel Manion wrote in United States of America v. James Bowling, 13-3895. “Having made the requisite showing, Bowling had the right to develop the mistake-of-fact defense and present it to a jury.”
Because the judges couldn’t say whether the jury still would have found him guilty had he been able to cross-examine the county prosecutor and develop this defense is full, the error is not harmless and requires a new trial.
The 7th Circuit also affirmed the District Court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the government to prove the underlying felony charge rather than stipulate to it as Bowling had wanted.