A recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court will result in a clarification regarding rules of double jeopardy in the criminal justice system. The case involves a man, Lamar Evans, who was acquitted of burning down a vacant house after the judge presiding over his trial incorrectly required prosecutors to prove more than they had to.
The Supreme Court must now decide whether Evans can be tried again for the crime following the botched first attempt. A decision will likely have to wait until the end of June, but it could be an important one, creating an exception to what has been a steadfast rule against suspected criminals being tried twice for the same crime.
When the hearing was conducted earlier this week, the justices appeared torn over how to balance the protection afforded by the double jeopardy rule against the danger of setting guilty people free by refusing to allow prosecutors to try the case a second time.
Chief Justice John Roberts said that he always understood the rule to require that prosecutors get one fair shot to convict someone. However, he said, “It does seem to me that if they had been thrown out of court because of a legal error, it’s not a fair shot.” Justice Elena Kagan asked whether the defense attorney’s client might have gotten a “windfall” through a wrongful acquittal. “Your client walks away the winner when he shouldn’t have,” she said.
In Evans’ case, two officers in Detroit caught him in 2008 running with a can of gasoline away from a burning house. Investigators later found that gas had been poured across various rooms to accelerate the fire. Evans’ lawyer at the time pushed for the judge to instruct prosecutors to prove that the house was a dwelling at the time of the fire, even though state law did not require such evidence. The government was unable to meet the burden of proof and the judge then said that Evans was acquitted.
The Michigan Supreme Court later ruled 4-3 that Evans should be retried because the original acquittal was based on an error of law that did not address the facts of the specific crime. Because the problem was a legal one and not a factual one, the Michigan Court said there was no double jeopardy problem.
Evans’ lawyers appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying that legal errors do not prevent an acquittal from being a final ruling on a case, thus closing the door to a future second trial. Defense attorneys from around the country have voiced support for Evans’ appeal saying that double jeopardy has acted as an ironclad rule for more than a century and should be upheld.
If you’ve had a run in with the law and find yourself in need of a St. Louis criminal defense lawyer capable of fighting for your freedom, don’t hesitate to contact our St. Louis criminal law firm today at (314) 863-0500.
Source: “Supreme Court weighs limit on double jeopardy rule,” by Jonathan Stempel, published at Reuters.com.