U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS bars retrial of man acquitted based on judge's legal error; Alito is lone dissenter

A directed verdict of acquittal by a judge who misunderstood the requirements of Michigan’s arson law has saved a defendant from a retrial.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision (PDF) on Wednesday that double jeopardy barred a retrial for arson defendant Lamar Evans. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion, while Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented.

Evans was accused of burning down an unoccupied house. He was charged with arson of “other real property” rather than the arson of a “dwelling house.” A trial judge had issued a directed verdict of acquittal because prosecutors had failed to prove that the targeted home was not a “dwelling house,” a decision based on a mistaken interpretation of the law. Evans later conceded that arson of “other real property” is a lesser included offense under Michigan law, and there is no need to disprove the greater offense.

Sotomayor framed the issue this way: “whether retrial is barred when a trial court grants an acquittal because the prosecution had failed to prove an ‘element’ of the offense that, in actuality, it did not have to prove.” She answered the question in the affirmative, citing prior cases that have barred retrial after court-ordered acquittals, including those based on judges’ erroneous interpretations of legal principles.

Alito was the lone dissenter. “The court holds that the double jeopardy clause bars petitioner’s retrial for arson because his attorney managed to convince a judge to terminate petitioner’s first trial prior to verdict on the specious ground that the offense with which he was charged contains an imaginary ‘element’ that the prosecution could not prove,” Alito wrote. “The court’s decision makes no sense” and is inconsistent with the original meaning of double jeopardy, he said.

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