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Function of Juries & Jury Nullification | 27 May 2014

-Supreme Court Upholds Prohibition on Double Jeopardy

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LawBooksLast week the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a Guilty verdict a judge had directed jurors to deliver. We have more good news today for the future of the jury and their power of jury nullification. This morning the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed in no uncertain terms in its ruling in Martinez v. Illinois one of the key elements in our legal system that are the foundation for jurors’ ability to conscientiously acquit through jury nullification: the prohibition against retrying a defendant for a crime of which he has been acquitted, also known as “double jeopardy”.

In this case, the state of Illinois charged Esteban Martinez with aggravated battery and mob action against two individuals. Martinez’ trial date was delayed for more than four years due to repeated continuances, many of which were requested by the prosecution who were still attempting to track down their witnesses. When the trial had been pending for two months shy of half a decade and the state still had not located the witnesses it needed to make its case, the judge finally turned down further requests from the state for continuances. The court took several steps to delay the trial so the witnesses could be found, including delaying the swearing of jurors until the entire jury had been empaneled, rearranging its schedule to put other cases first to delay the swearing of jurors further, offering to delay the trial for a few more hours if that would help, and giving the state the option of either moving to dismiss its case or having the jury sworn. When the appointed time for the trial arrived, the state was still unprepared to make its case. Rather than moving to dismiss its case, the state had the following conversation with the judge:

“THE COURT: . . . . It’s a quarter to eleven and [Binion and Scott] have not appeared on their own will, so I’m going to bring the jury in now then to swear them.
“[The Prosecutor]: Okay. Your Honor, may I ap­proach briefly?
“THE COURT: Yes.
“[The Prosecutor]: Your Honor, just so your Honor is aware, I know that it’s the process to bring them in and swear them in; however, the State will not be par­ticipating in the trial. I wanted to let you know that.
“THE COURT: Very well. We’ll see how that works.”

The jury was then sworn, the state was directed to present its opening statement, and the prosecutor proceeded to declare repeatedly in response to such directions that the state was not participating in the case. At that point, the defense moved for directed verdicts of Not Guilty on both counts, which the judge granted. The state appealed this ruling on the basis that it believed that yet another continuance would have been appropriate. The defense opposed this appeal on the grounds that to retry Martinez at this point would constitute a violation of the prohibition on double jeopardy. Both the Illinois Appeals Court and the Illinois Supreme Court sided with the state, claiming in spite of very clear precedent otherwise, that the defendant had never been in jeopardy, even though his jury had been empaneled and sworn.

The Supreme Court ruled today that:

The trial of Esteban Martinez was set to begin on May 17, 2010. His counsel was ready; the State was not. When the court swore in the jury and invited the State to pre­ sent its first witness, the State declined to present any evidence. So Martinez moved for a directed not-guilty verdict, and the court granted it. The State appealed, arguing that the trial court should have granted its motion for a continuance. The question is whether the Double Jeopardy Clause bars the State’s attempt to appeal in the hope of subjecting Martinez to a new trial.

The Illinois Supreme Court manifestly erred in allowing the State’s appeal, on the theory that jeopardy never attached because Martinez “was never at risk of convic­ tion.” 2013 IL 113475, ¶39, 990 N. E. 2d 215, 224. Our cases have repeatedly stated the bright-line rule that “jeopardy attaches when the jury is empaneled and sworn.” Crist v. Bretz, 437 U. S. 28, 35 (1978); see infra, at 6. There is simply no doubt that Martinez was subjected to jeopardy. And because the trial court found the State’s evidence insufficient to sustain a conviction, there is equally no doubt that Martinez may not be retried.

We therefore grant Martinez’s petition for certiorari and reverse the judgment of the Illinois Supreme Court.

The prosecutor erred dramatically in this case, and the state was essentially trying to get a free “do over” by ignoring the protections built into our system to prevent defendants from having vast chunks of their lives held hostage at the mercy of a state that can neither prove its case nor is willing to leave them alone. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “the State knew, or should have known, that an acquittal forever bars the retrial of the defendant when it occurs after jeopardy has attached. The Illinois Supreme Court’s holding is understandable, given the significant conse­ quence of the State’s mistake, but it runs directly counter to our precedents and to the protection conferred by the Double Jeopardy Clause.”

If your lifespan is 75 years and the government ties you up with a legal situation such as this for 5 years, that is more than 6% of your life you will live in a legal limbo with a tainted reputation, with the psychological stress of a looming court case and the possibility of conviction and incarceration, the mental and emotional toll it is taking not just on you but also your loved ones, the financially draining need to keep paying expensive lawyers for years, and the inability to really plan for the future, not knowing if everything you are working toward will be snatched away from you at some point down the road. Even without having been convicted, you are being severely punished as the legal process drags on and on with no end in sight. This can be a powerful tool wielded by the prosecution to bully defendants into accepting a plea deal.

This case was ultimately never heard or decided by the jury. However, the jury had been both empaneled and sworn in, at which time our legal system clearly provides that jeopardy has attached to the case. The prohibition against double jeopardy has been chipped away over the years from its original intent. Prosecutors are already able to sidle around this prohibition by retrying a case lost in state or federal court in the other court system and other shenanigans. The more it is whittled away, the less juries have the opportunity to bring unjust prosecutions to a grinding halt with their Not Guilty verdicts. This ruling upholding the prohibition against double jeopardy, even though it wasn’t specifically in a case decided by a jury, helps shore up this key element that has been severely eroded in many ways.

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