The Supreme Court on Friday granted review of a case testing whether the prosecution or the defense has the burden at trial on the issue of duress or coercion as a defense to a criminal charge — an issue that has divided lower courts. The case is Dixon v. U.S.(05-7053).

That was the only case granted on Friday. The Court made no immediate announcement of action on a key war-on-terrorism case, Padilla v. Hanft (05-533), challenging the capture and detention of a U.S. citizen when the capture occurred on American soil in a civilian setting.

In the granted case, Keshia Cherie Ashford Dixon, a Texan who had been convicted of making false statements about illegal gun purchases, claimed that she bought the guns under duress. She was found guilty of making the purchases while under indictment. She was sentenced to 34 months in prison.

Dixon had bought the guns at gun shows in Dallas, by giving dealers false information, including a statement that she was not facing any criminal charges. At the time, she was facing charges of illegal check-cashing.

At her trial, she admitted that she knew she was under indictment when she bought the guns, and that she had violated federal gun law by giving false information. But she claimed she had acted under duress, from her boyfriend, whom she claimed beat her on a regular basis, and controlled her movements. She testified that she was afraid that, if she did not buy the guns for him, he would hurt or kill her.

Her defense lawyer asked the trial judge to instruct the jury that she was obliged to produce evidence to support her claim of duress, but that the government had to disprove that defense beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge denied the request, assigning her the burden of establishing the defense by a preponderance of the evidence.

The Justice Department opposed Supreme Court review, arguing that she was not even entitled to a duress defense instruction. The Department conceded that there was some disagreement among the courts of appeals on the burden issue, but contended that Dixon’s case was not an appropriate one in which to resolve that dispute.

The issue the Court will decide is whether the “burden of persuasion” falls on the government, using a reasonable doubt standard, or on the accused.

The case presumably will be heard in April.

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