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Saturday, June 15, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge’s Goof Bars Retrial of Suspected Arsonist

WASHINGTON (CN) - Double jeopardy bars Michigan from retrying a man on arson after an improper acquittal the first time around, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled.

Lamar Evans was charged with burning a vacant house and other property in violation of Section 750.73 of Michigan law. Officers testified that they apprehended Evans running away, carrying a can of gasoline, from a house that they saw erupt into flames in September 2008.

Under the misapprehension that the law under which Evans had been charged could not apply to "dwellings," the trial court granted Evans a directed verdict of acquittal, dismissing the case.

The Court of Appeals then pointed out that this holding was incorrect, and said retrying Evans would not implicate double jeopardy.

A divided Michigan Supreme Court affirmed in March 2012, leading the U.S. Supreme Court to grant certiorari three months later.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor led an eight-member reversal Wednesday.

"Seeing no meaningful constitutional distinction between a trial court's 'miscon­struction' of a statute and its erroneous addition of a statutory element, we hold that a midtrial acquittal in these circumstances is an acquittal for double jeopardy purposes as well," the majority opinion states.

Citing the court's 1962 decision Fong Foo v. United States, Sotomayor said precedent dictates the latest holding.

"It has been half a century since we first recognized that the double jeopardy clause bars retrial following a court-decreed acquittal, even if the acquittal is 'based upon an egregiously erroneous founda­tion,'" Sotomayor wrote. "A mistaken acquittal is an acquittal none­theless, and we have long held that '[a] verdict of acquittal . . . could not be reviewed, on error or otherwise, without putting [a defendant] twice in jeopardy, and thereby vio­lating the Constitution.'"

Michigan is simply out of luck on this case, according to the ruling.

"There is no question the trial court's ruling was wrong; it was predicated upon a clear misunderstanding of what facts the state needed to prove under state law," Sotomayor wrote. "But that is of no moment."

Similar legal errors have implicated double jeopardy in the resentencing of capital murder convictions, according to the ruling.

"In the end, this case follows those that have come before it," Sotomayor wrote. "The trial court's judgment of acquittal resolved the question of Evans' guilt or innocence as a matter of the sufficiency of the evidence, not on unrelated procedural grounds. That judgment, 'however erroneous' it was, precludes reprosecution on this charge, and so should have barred the state's appeal as well."

In an 11-page dissent, Justice Samuel Alito argued simply that the majority's "decision makes no sense."

"It is not consistent with the original meaning of the Double Jeopardy Clause; it does not serve the purposes of the prohibition against double jeopardy; and contrary to the Court's reasoning, the trial judge's ruling was not an 'acquittal,' which our cases have 'consistently' defined as a decision that '"actually repre­sents a resolution, correct or not, of some or all of the factual elements of the offense charged,"'' Alito wrote, quoting the 2005 decision Smith v. Massachusetts, which in turn had quoted the 1977 decision United States v. Martin Linen Supply Co. (Emphasis added by Alito.)

"For no good reason, the court deprives the state of Michigan of its right to have one fair opportunity to convict petitioner, and I therefore respect­fully dissent," Alito added.

Double jeopardy does not apply because a retrial does not afford "a second opportunity to persuade the fact finder that its evidence satisfies the actual elements of the offense," according to the dissent. "Instead, be­cause the trial judge's ruling in the first trial was not based on an actual element of the charged offense, retrial would simply give the prosecution one fair opportunity to prove its case."

Alito found it significant that defense counsel for Evans, rather than the state, sought to terminate the trial prior to verdict.

"This is a case in which defense counsel fooled the judge into committing an error that provided his client with an undeserved benefit, the termination of a trial that the defense obviously did not want to run to completion," he wrote. "The double jeopardy clause does not require that the defense receive an even greater benefit, the protection provided by an acquittal.

"As this court has repeatedly emphasized in double jeopardy cases, a state has an interest in receiving 'one complete opportunity to convict those who have violated its laws,' but today's decision deprives the state of Michigan of this valuable right."

Alito also complained that the majority opinion "flies in the face" of court precedent.

"Today, the court effectively abandons the well ­established definition of an acquittal," he wrote. "Indeed, in the face of our repeated holdings that an acquittal for double jeop­ardy purposes requires a 'resolution, correct or not, of some or all of the factual elements of the offense charged,' the court now declares that 'the touchstone [is] not whether any particular elements were resolved.' Instead, the court proclaims that the dispositive question is whether a midtrial termination represented a 'procedural dismissa[l]' or a 'substantive rulin[g].' This reformulation of double jeopardy law is not faithful to our precedents - or to the double jeopardy clause itself. The key question is not whether a ruling is 'procedural' or 'sub­stantive' (whatever those terms mean in this context), but whether a ruling relates to the defendant's factual guilt or innocence with respect to the 'offence' - and thus the elements - with which he is charged."

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