United States v. Sardar Askrafkhan

On July 10, 2020, the Sixth Circuit upheld the conviction and sentence of appellant Sardar Ashrafkhan from the Eastern District of Michigan.  After a long jury trial, Mr. Ashrafkhan was found guilty of one count of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, one count of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud, and two counts of money laundering.

In 1991, Mr. Ashrafkhan came to the United States to study at Michigan State University.  Prior to earning his Ph.D. in the U.S., he received a medical degree from the top British-established medical school in Pakistan.  In 2006, Mr. Ashrafkhan opened a medical clinic called Compassionate Doctors outside of Detroit, Michigan.  This practice was designed to reach homebound patients in the underserved areas of Detroit and surrounding areas.  During the trial, however, the government presented evidence portraying Compassionate as a “pill mill” practice that did not provide any legitimate medical services.  It argued the practice wrote fake prescriptions to individuals not in need of opioid-based drugs, and committed millions of dollars’ worth of Medicare fraud.  Mr. Ashrafkhan appealed the district court’s opinion raising numerous arguments.  The Sixth Circuit affirmed the conviction and sentence of twenty-three years imprisonment.   The appellate court issued two opinions addressing this matter – a published opinion discussing the reasonable doubt jury instruction issue and an unpublished opinion focusing on the remaining five arguments.

Mr. Ashrafkhan argued that the district court’s failure to provide the jury with the Sixth Circuit’s model instruction for reasonable doubt was a violation of his rights.  More specifically, Mr. Ashrafkhan contended that the reasonable doubt jury instruction given by the district court did not include this critical statement from the Sixth Circuit Pattern Criminal Jury Instruction:

Reasonable doubt means proof which is so convincing that you would not hesitate to rely and act on it in making the most important decisions in your own lives. If you are convinced that the government has proved the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, say so by returning a guilty verdict. If you are not convinced, say so by returning a not guilty verdict.

See Sixth Circuit Pattern Criminal Jury Instructions 1.03(5).  Ashrafkhan argued that the district court’s decision to omit language describing proof was an error warranting a new trial.  He argued it constitutes an abuse of discretion because it did not properly inform the jury of the high burden that the government had to meet.

The Sixth Circuit held that the inclusion or omission of certain words will not, on its own, deem a jury instruction invalid.  Relying on In Re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970), the Court noted that the “beyond-a-reasonable-doubt” standard is not defined precisely by the Constitution, and no particular definition is required when advising the jury on reasonable doubt.  Instead, the Court held “all that is required is that if a court chooses to define the standard, that it makes clear to the jury that the burden of proof is high.”

Thus, an appellate court’s role in evaluating a trial court’s reasonable doubt instruction is to focus on whether the instruction clearly explained to the jury the government’s high burden of proof, not to fixate on the specific dicta used or not used in the instruction.  The instruction must not be confusing as to the burden required.  In Binder v. Stegall, 198 F.3d 177, 178 (6th Cir. 1999), the Sixth Circuit upheld a reasonable doubt jury instruction that read: “A fair, honest doubt growing out of the evidence or lack of evidence.  It is not merely an imaginary doubt or possible doubt, but a doubt based upon reason and common sense.”

Ultimately, the Sixth Circuit ruled that the reasonable doubt instruction used by the district court in Mr. Ashrafkhan’s case was valid because it properly instructed the jury of the high burden placed on the government.  More specifically, the instruction stated that the decision should be based on “the evidence or lack of evidence.”  Furthermore, it explained that reasonable doubt was one that was “still standing” after all evidence had been taken into consideration.  The Court held that the inclusion of language that reasonable doubt was one that was “fair and honest” inferred the high burden on the government.  Therefore, the instruction used did not create a reversible error.