US Supreme Court Hears Double Jeopardy Arguments

On behalf of Law Office of Steven Haney posted in Felonies on Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Almost everyone in the US knows what “double jeopardy” is: namely, that once a jury acquits you of a crime, the State cannot bring you back to trial on the same charges. The concept of double jeopardy is a staple in countless Hollywood movies, and is mentioned in the media almost daily. However, it is important to note that the prohibition on double jeopardy only applies when the jury actually renders a verdict, and not when they are “hung” – which is when they are unable to come to a decision one way or the other.

In Illinois, the criminal defense available under the double jeopardy clause is codified in statute and says, “A prosecution is barred if the defendant was formerly prosecuted for the same offense… if that former prosecution…resulted in…an acquittal.” The question now becomes, “What constitutes an official acquittal?” This is in fact what the US Supreme Court is currently considering.

Double Jeopardy: What is Considered an Acquittal?

The Supreme Court case, which originated in Arkansas, revolves around the death of a 19-month-old baby – a baby who was struck and then died after his brain swelled. The accused, Alex Blueford, insisted during trial that the death of the baby was an accident, and that he inadvertently struck the child with his elbow after the child had surprised him from behind – which the jurors apparently believed to some degree.

After deliberating for some time, the jurors sent a note to the judge saying they were having problems coming to a conclusion. According to a partial transcript, when the jurors came back to open court the forewoman explained that they had voted unanimously for acquittal on both the capital-murder and first-degree murder charges, but they were split 9 to 3 on the manslaughter charge and had not yet discussed the negligent homicide charge. Blueford’s lawyer requested the court to enter the verdicts regarding the two serious charges, but the judge declined – instead instructing the jury to try again. After the jury returned deadlocked on the manslaughter charge again, the court declared a mistrial.

Following the mistrial, prosecutors again brought charges against Blueford, and his attorney asked for the two serious charges to be thrown out since they were already decided – and thus violated the prohibition on double jeopardy. The court disagreed stating the verdicts were never official or entered into the record. The Arkansas Supreme Court in their opinion went on to say, “The mere reading of the jury’s verdict in open court does not constitute an acquittal.”

Obviously prosecutors routinely bring charges again after hung juries and mistrials, but as Blueford’s attorneys in this case argue, the jury had in fact made a determination as to the two serious charges – they unanimously voted for acquittal on those charges.

The decision by the US Supreme Court will undoubtedly have double jeopardy ramifications for the entire country. Those accused, and successfully defended, should not have to defend themselves time after time – that goes against everything the Bill of Rights was drafted to protect.

Source: The Supreme Court: When Double Jeopardy Isn’t Double Jeopardy