A recent United States Supreme Court case may impact the practical ability of the wider legal system to protect criminally accused individuals from double jeopardy.

When an accused person is forced to construct a criminal defense against formal charges, they are constitutionally protected from being re-tried for the same crimes they were originally charged with. However, the recent Supreme Court decision narrows this protection against repeat prosecutions.

The case before the Court involved a man who was charged with the death of his girlfriend’s one-year-old son under four separate theories. These theories, in increasing order of severity, were: negligent homicide, manslaughter, first-degree murder and capital murder.

When the jury was instructed on how to determine guilt, it was told to consider the charges in decreasing order of seriousness. This meant that the jury was only to consider the lesser charges if the man was determined to be not guilty of the more severe charges by unanimous vote.

Ultimately, the jury voted unanimously that the man was not guilty of the two most severe charges. However, the jury deadlocked on the charge of manslaughter and the judge declared a mistrial in the case.

When prosecutors chose to try the man again under all four theories, his attorneys objected to prosecution under the more severe theories. Their reasoning was that their client had already been acquitted under these theories and could not be tried again under them due to the constitutional protection against double jeopardy.

However, the Supreme Court disagreed. Please check back later this week as we continue our discussion about this case and its potential impacts for other accused persons.

Source: New York Times, “Justices Allow Retrial on Rejected Charges,” Adam Liptak, May 24, 2012

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