If a court errs in granting a dismissal mid-trial, should a defendant be subject to re-trial? This is the subject of a most recent case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Evans v. Michigan, the defense attorney argued for a judgment of acquittal, after the prosecution rested its case, that the prosecution failed to prove an element of the offense for which the defendant was charged (an example would be a deadly weapon element to an assault with a deadly weapon charge). Remember, the prosecution has the burden to prove every element of a criminal charge beyond a reasonable doubt. The court agreed with the defense and granted a judgment of acquittal (dismissal). Evans was free, but should he have been?
The Michigan Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Michigan decided otherwise. They determined that the trial court was wrong that the government failed to prove an element of the offense because it was simply not an element of the charge. So then, the State proved enough of its case to send it to a jury to decide, but did not get its chance. Most importantly, though, was that those courts also decided that Evans could be re-tried upon remand (sending the case back to the trial court).
The Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution usually bars the retrial of a defendant when a decision is made on the merits or facts of the case, whether by the judge or the jury. Here the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the granting of a judgment of acquittal, regardless of the reason, bars a re-trial because the Double Jeopardy Clause forbids it. Why?
Generally, the Double Jeopardy Clause prevents anyone "...subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb..." The finality of decisions and to prevent placing citizens in fear of being tried by the government's vast resources, repeatedly, until the government gets it right, were some of the concerns that plagued the founders of our nation. So, why did the U.S. Supreme Court determine that the two (2) Michigan appellate courts were wrong to allow Mr. Evans to be re-tried? The answer lies in the Court's detailed analysis, which is summarized here.
Previous to the Evans case, the Court determined that, anytime there is a decision addressing the facts or merits of a case, such as that the prosecution's evidence is insufficient to prove the crime charged, a re-trial is barred. So, if the Court dismisses a case early, on procedural grounds or grants a mistrial, the Double Jeopardy Clause does not bar a retrial because those reasons are unrelated to the facts of guilt or innocence. However, a judgment of acquittal deals squarely with questions related to factual guilt and, as such, a re-trial is barred, regardless of whether the court erred in granting it.
Do you think it is fair to let someone go because the court made an error? Do you think the Court made a serious mistake in interpreting the Double Jeopardy Clause the way that it has? We want to hear from you.