The U.S. Supreme Court decision last week in Blueford v. Arkansas has ignited a mini-debate over the issue of double jeopardy in criminal trials.
In a piece “Does the Supreme Court Believe in Double Jeopardy Protections?” published on his Atlantic.com blog, Andrew Cohen cites this case as a key indicator of the Court’s turn away from the established doctrine of not subjecting defendants to multiple trials for the same accusation.
Aside from the question of why the Court heard the case in the first place, which I’ll admit does seem a bit strange, given the elements of the case, there appears to be little in the way of precedent-establishing new law created here.
The reason is simple: There was no verdict. No verdict and no acquittal.
In Blueford, the trial court was given the murder case with the usual jury instructions, but after retiring and deliberating for “a few hours” it returned and claimed it was “hopelessly deadlocked.” The jury foreperson then entered into a colloquy with the judge over the counts the jury considered and the resultant vote counts.
In the first vote, the jury unanimously agree against a capital murder verdict, and against a first degree murder verdict, but could not reach agreement on the question of manslaughter, and did not vote on returning a verdict of negligent homicide. No verdict was entered into the record and, after issuing an Allen charge, the judge sent the jury back out to continue to deliberate. After a brief period, they returned without having reached a verdict and the judge declared a mistrial.
In its 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court, in a majority opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, affirmed a lower court ruling that the State of Arkansas was not barred from re-trying Blueford under the Double Jeopardy standard, because in order for double jeopardy to adhere in the prosecution, a verdict must be reached, delivered to and affirmed by the judge.
The presiding judge’s exchange with the jury foreperson might be misconstrued as a verdict, but Chief Justice Roberts and the Court’s majority agreed that it did not constitute the rendering of a verdict, and the trial judge’s act of instructing the jury to resume deliberations (whereupon they could have re-opened discussion on any of the potential charges) was enough to determine that the jury’s deliberations did not result in a verdict, and the state of Arkansas is free to refile against Blueford.