(CN) – An Arkansas man can be retried on capital murder charges connected to the death of his girlfriend’s baby because the first jury was deadlocked on lesser charges and never entered a verdict, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Alex Blueford was charged with capital murder after his girlfriend’s child, 1-year-old Matthew McFadden Jr., sustained a severe head injury and died in 2007.
Prosecutors claimed that Blueford had injured the infant intentionally, while Blueford claimed that he had accidentally knocked McFadden to the ground.
During deliberations, the jury had to consider the three lesser offenses included in capital murder charges: first-degree murder, manslaughter and negligent homicide.
The jury reported after a few hours that it was “hopelessly” deadlocked.
When the court asked for their votes on the charges, the jury foreperson revealed that the jurors had voted unanimously against the charges of capital murder and murder in the first degree. But they were split 9-3 on manslaughter and had not yet voted on negligent homicide.
The court refused to let the jury enter a verdict on the charges that they agreed on, agreeing with the state’s argument that a verdict of acquittal had to be “all or nothing.”
When the case ended in a mistrial, the state sought to retry Blueford on all of the charges. The trial court rejected Blueford’s claims that the charges of capital and first-degree murder could not proceed on double jeopardy grounds,
After the state Supreme Court affirmed, the justices in Washington took up the case. They affirmed Thursday.
“Here, according to Blueford, the foreperson’s announcement of the jury’s unanimous votes on capital and first-degree murder represented just that: a resolution of some or all of the elements of those offenses in Blueford’s favor,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the six-member majority. “We disagree. The foreperson’s report was not a final resolution of anything. When the foreperson told the court how the jury had voted on each offense, the jury’s deliberations had not yet concluded. The jurors in fact went back to the jury room to deliberate further, even after the foreperson had delivered her report. When they emerged a half hour later, the foreperson stated only that they were unable to reach a verdict. She gave no indication whether it was still the case that all 12 jurors believed Blueford was not guilty of capital or first-degree murder, that 9 of them believed he was guilty of manslaughter, or that avote had not been taken on negligent homicide. The fact that deliberations continued after the report deprives that report of the finality necessary to constitute an acquittal on the murder offenses.”
In support of its finding, the court described a hypothetical situation in which the jurors take an initial vote before they ever discuss the case. After hearing their fellow jurors’ views, however, some may have changed their minds from the initial vote.
“At that point, nothing in the instructions prohibits the jury from doing what juries often do: revisit a prior vote,” Roberts wrote.
“It was therefore possible for Blueford’s jury to revisit the offenses of capital and first-degree murder, notwithstanding its earlier votes,” he added. “And because of that possibility, the foreperson’s report prior to the end of deliberations lacked the finality necessary to amount to an acquittal on those offenses, quite apart from any requirement that a formal verdict be returned or judgment entered.”
The majority also refused to consider that the mistrial declaration was improper because the trial court “should have taken ‘some action,’ whether through partial verdict forms or other means, to allow the jury to give effect to those votes, and then considered a mistrial only as to the remaining charges.”
“We reject that suggestion,” Roberts wrote. “We have never required a trial court, before declaring a mistrial because of a hung jury, to consider any particular means of breaking the impasse – let alone to consider giving the jury new options for a verdict.”
The dissent countered, however, that their colleagues misapplied the principles of double jeopardy.
“Arkansas’ model jury instructions require a jury to complete its deliberations on a greater offense before it may consider a lesser,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.
“Blueford’s position is even stronger because his jury was not silent on the murder counts, but announced that it was ‘unanimous against’ conviction,” Sotomayor added. “And the trial judge specifically instructed the jury to consider manslaughter only after acquitting Blueford of the murder counts. Courts in several acquittal-first jurisdictions have held that a jury’s deadlock on a lesser included offense justifies the assumption that the jury acquitted on any greater offenses. That assumption is not even necessary here because the jury unmistakably announced acquittal.”
The dissenting judges added that the double jeopardy clause requires trial judges, “in an acquittal-first jurisdiction, to honor a defendant’s request for a partial verdict before declaring a mistrial on the ground of jury deadlock.”
Requiring a partial verdict in an acquittal-first jurisdiction ensures that the jurisdiction takes the bitter with the sweet,” Sotomayor added. “In general, an acquittal-first instruction increases the likelihood of conviction on a greater offense. True, such an instruction may also result in deadlock on a greater, preventing a state ‘from obtaining a conviction on the lesser charge that would otherwise have been forthcoming and thus require the expense of a retrial.’ But a state willing to incur that expense loses nothing by overcharging in an acquittal-first regime. At worst, the state enjoys a second opportunity to convict, ‘with the possibility that the earlier “trial run” will strengthen the prosecution’s case.’ If a state wants the benefits of requiring a jury to acquit before compromising, it should not be permitted to deprive a defendant of the corresponding benefits of having been acquitted. The Double Jeopardy Clause expressly prohibits that outcome.”
The dissent also slams Blueford’s trial judge for dismissing the jury before asking whether their unanimous votes still held true.
“Because the judge failed to take even this modest step – or indeed, to explore any alternatives to a mistrial, or even to make an on-the-record finding of manifest necessity – I conclude that there was an abuse of discretion,” Sotomayor wrote.
“This case demonstrates that the threat to individual freedom from reprosecutions that favor states and unfairly rescue them from weak cases has not waned with time,” she added. “Only this court’s vigilance has.”