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How the Supreme Court defines ‘Double Jeopardy’

In 2012 and 2013, the United States Supreme Court considered double jeopardy issues, shedding light on the meanings of these legal terms

The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits subjecting any person “for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb…”

Commonly known as the Double Jeopardy Clause, its application and interpretation are often not as simple as the short quote would suggest. The law governing this Constitutional prohibition includes acquittals, attachment of jeopardy, and mistrials.

In 2012 and 2013, the United States Supreme Court considered double jeopardy issues, shedding light on the meanings of these legal terms.

Mistrial in Blueford v. Arkansas
In Blueford v. Arkansas, the issue involved a mistrial and the intricacies of jury voting. The State of Arkansas charged Blueford with capital murder in the death of a one-year old child. Matthew McFadden, Jr., the son of Blueford’s girlfriend, died after suffering a head injury while in the defendant’s care.

At trial, the judge instructed the jury on the capital murder charge and the lesser offenses of first-degree murder, manslaughter, and negligent homicide. The jury, however, had difficulty reaching a verdict. After several hours of deliberation, the jury reported that they were “unanimous against guilt” on the capital murder and first-degree murder charges, deadlocked on the manslaughter charge, and had not voted on negligent homicide.

Ultimately, after continued deliberations failed to result in a verdict, the judge declared a mistrial.

When the State proceeded with a retrial, the defendant sought dismissal of the murder charges on Double Jeopardy grounds, arguing that the jury had acquitted him of those charges. The Supreme Court of Arkansas disagreed, concluding that the jury foreperson had not made a formal judgment of acquittal when she reported the jury’s lack of progress to the trial judge. No formal verdict was announced or entered.

In a 6-3 opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, rejecting Blueford’s Double Jeopardy argument on the grounds that no final verdict was entered — although the first jury had failed to convict the defendant, neither had they acquitted him.

Acquittal in Evans v. Michigan
In Evans v. Michigan, the question before the Court involved a trial court’s directed verdict of acquittal based on an erroneous view of the law and the State’s subsequent efforts to retry the defendant.

The State of Michigan charged Evans with arson for allegedly burning down an unoccupied house. At the close of the State’s case, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion for a directed verdict of acquittal based on its (incorrect) analysis of the elements of the offense and its determination that the prosecution had failed to prove an element.

The State appealed and the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed, clearing the way for a second arson trial for Evans. Before the Supreme Court of Michigan, Evans argued that the Double Jeopardy Clause prevented the State from retrying him. The Supreme Court of Michigan found it “undisputed” that the trial court had erred in its analysis of the elements needed as proof and concluded that the trial court’s ruling had not constituted an acquittal for purposes of double jeopardy.

In an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed. Analyzing the precise meaning of acquittal, the Court drew a distinction between dismissals on procedural grounds and substantive rulings. An acquittal is an acquittal even if it is based on erroneous evidentiary rulings or interpretations of law:

“[O]ur cases have defined an acquittal to encompass any ruling that the prosecution’s proof is insufficient to establish criminal liability for an offense.” 

Moreover, the consequences of an acquittal are significant. Unlike a dismissal on procedural grounds, an acquittal results in the attachment of double jeopardy and bars retrial for the same offense. This represents a lost opportunity to seek justice and a bitter pill for the prosecution in cases such as this — where the error resulting in the judgment of acquittal was not the fault of the government.

The opinion’s lone dissenter, Justice Alito, questioned the procedural dismissal-substantive ruling distinction and stated that the Court was abandoning “the well-established definition of an acquittal.”

For Alito, the key to the Fifth Amendment’s double jeopardy jurisprudence was not whether a ruling was procedural or substantive, but rather whether the ruling related to the defendant’s factual guilt or innocence of the offense charged. Permitting retrial under the circumstances of this case, he argued, would be appropriate.


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