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This week, the United States Supreme Court in McElrath v. Georgia affirmed the sanctity of a jury acquittal on double jeopardy grounds.  Writing the opinion for the unanimous court, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said, “an acquittal is an acquittal, even when a jury returns inconsistent verdicts” and second guessing the rationale behind an acquittal to circumvent double jeopardy is impermissible.

The Georgia jury in McElrath acquitted on one count and convicted on another count.  On appeal, the Georgia courts found that the verdicts were so inconsistent with each other that they were “repugnant,” had to be set aside and the defendant retried.  But instead of vacating only the count of conviction, the Georgia Supreme Court ordered retrial on both the acquitted count and the count on which the defendant was convicted.  McElrath objected to retrial on the acquitted count due to double jeopardy concerns.  The Georgia Supreme Court disagreed and held that the verdicts were so inconsistent that they were “rendered valueless.”  Because of that, it found that the situation was akin to a mistrial where the defendant can face retrial.

The unanimous United States Supreme Court reversed the Georgia Supreme Court.  The Court said that “a jury’s verdict of acquittal is inviolate” and the Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits second-guessing the reason for a jury’s acquittal.  The Supreme Court found it important to make a bright line rule in this context because to do otherwise would do damage to our jury system.  Appellate courts cannot overturn acquittals if they simply do not think the not guilty verdict makes sense.  The Supreme Court remanded for retrial on the count of conviction but not the acquitted count.

This decision reaffirms the value of our jury system.  Jury’s verdicts do not have to make sense.  The Fifth and Sixth Amendments were meant to put the power of determining guilt in the hands of citizens, not judges.  This is a concept not lost on Justice Jackson, herself a former public defender.

We are trial lawyers at Willey & Chamberlain.  While not every case is worthy of a jury trial because of the quality of the prosecution’s evidence or the choices of the defendant, we all have a passion for trying cases.  Contact us for help.