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7th Cir. Adopts Definition of 'Maliciously' for Federal Arson Statute

By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD on March 31, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Francis Grady was on a mission to "blow up" a Planned Parenthood clinic in Grand Chute, Wisconsin, and when we was arrested, tried and convicted of arson and intentionally damaging property, he was surprised. With no wiggle room to get out of his conviction, he challenged the district court's definition of "maliciously" on appeal.

The Arson

Grady went to Daniel Wolf's house seeking gasoline and told him "that he wanted to blow up Planned Parenthood." Wolf refused, and Grady proceeded to buy gasoline, go to Planned Parenthood and start a fire. After hearing about the fire on the news, Wolf contacted police about Grady. During the police interview Grady confessed and said that he "lit the clinic up," that his "intention was to light the building," and he had told a friend afterward that he "thought as far as I know I though it f*****' burned right down."

At trial, Grady argued for the definition of "maliciously" adopted by the Eight Circuit: "intentionally caus[ing] damage without just cause or reason." Meanwhile, the Government urged the court to adopt the definition used by the Fourth and Eleventh Circuits: "[acting] intentionally or with deliberate disregard of the likelihood of damage or injury will result." The district court used the Government's definition, Grady was convicted, and appealed.

Definition of "Maliciously"

The Seventh Circuit found no error in the district court's jury instruction, and found sufficient legal basis for the district court's adoption of the Government's definition of "maliciously" noting first, that the definition adopted is in line with common understanding of what the word means. The court also noted that the definition has roots in the common law meaning of the term and many other circuits have adopted the same instruction. Interestingly, the court found that the Eighth Circuit "has since adopted the definition that was used by the district court."


Grady wanted his definition of "maliciously" adopted for two reasons: first, it would shift the burden to the government, and second, presumably, he was planning on arguing that he had a "just cause or reason." However, the court noted that he "failed to point to any cognizable legal justification for starting the fire." Having a different option does not a "just cause or reason" make.

Second, and more importantly, when you argue for a definition to be adopted, and then the court that originally used that definition stops using it, and adopts the definition your opponent is suggesting, you might want to see the writing on the wall -- your argument is meritless. Stop wasting judicial resources.

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