A Unanimous Supreme Court Stands with A Former Public Defender

The former public defender is the newest, and therefore the most junior, United States Supreme Court member, Justice Ketanji Brown. Justice Brown wrote a recently published opinion upholding the Fifth Amendment right of a criminal defendant, and if you guessed the right to remain silent, you would be wrong. It’s double jeopardy, but the case facts offer an enlightening look into the challenges and uphill battles a person accused of a crime faces upon entering the criminal court system.

The Fifth Amendment and double jeopardy

Mention of the Fifth Amendment immediately brings to mind countless police dramas on television, in which suspects are read Miranda warnings that begin with “you have the right to remain silent.” That right to remain silent, also referred to as the “right against self-incrimination” is just one of several protections defendants in criminal cases gain through the Fifth Amendment.

Another is the protection from being tried twice for the same crime. Double jeopardy is when the state or the federal government puts someone on trial for a crime that a jury has already acquitted them of committing. It’s a fundamental principle of law that an appeals court in Georgia ignored in a case that eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Facts of the case

A mentally ill man, under the delusional belief that the woman who adopted him was trying to kill him by poisoning his food, stabbed and killed her. Prosecutors charged him with malice murder, felony murder, and aggravated assault. The defendant entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.

The defense focused on the fact that the man’s mental health issues prevented him from knowing right from wrong at the time he stabbed his mother. The jury returned a split verdict that found the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity of the crime of malice murder, which in Georgia is an acquittal. However, it found him guilty but mentally ill of the other charges. He was sentenced to life in prison.

An appeal of the case made its way to the Georgia Supreme Court, which ruled the acquittal of malice murder and the conviction of felony murder violated state law. The appellate court declared the split verdicts inconsistent because it would require two different states of mind simultaneously, thus rendering the verdicts valueless.

The court ordered a new trial on all charges, including the malice murder charge the jury had previously found the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity. The Georgia court ruled that the inconsistent verdicts did not make sense. According to the defense, though, it appeared that the Georgia Court’s decision ignoring the Fifth Amendment and the defendant’s protection against double jeopardy was the nonsensical decision.

Protection against double jeopardy prevail

Justice Brown’s opinion was relatively short compared to what the Court usually produces, but it quickly dismantled the state court's efforts to retry the defendant. She began by reaffirming the finality of verdicts of acquittal. An appellate court cannot change that no matter how much they might try, including claiming it does not make sense.

When a jury returns a verdict in a criminal case, the jurors’ reasoning in reaching their verdict is not revealed. An acquittal means the prosecution failed to prove the crime it charged against the defendant and all the necessary elements of that crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

Justice Brown’s opinion for a unanimous Court makes an interesting point: A jury is free to find a defendant not guilty for any reason it wishes. When a jury returns a split verdict, the Constitution does not allow a court to overturn an acquittal because of a lack of consistency between the verdicts.

As attorneys, we often believe that jurors hold firm and true to the instructions they receive regarding the law in a case. Still, we have to acknowledge that they are only human, and sometimes, their verdict can encompass other aspects that aren’t contemplated by the instructions they receive. Again, though, we don’t always have the reasons for the ultimate decision.

A takeaway from this case

Much has been written about the philosophical divide within the U.S. Supreme Court, so it’s good to see a unanimous decision reversing a state court's efforts to trample on a defendant's fundamental rights in a criminal case. It’s also an opportunity to remind everyone of the importance of having an experienced criminal defense attorney representing you should you or a loved one be accused of committing a crime, both during trial and throughout the criminal appellate process.

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