U.S. Supreme Court

Justices Mull if Double Jeopardy Bars Retrial When Judge Acquits Based on Legal Error

The U.S. Supreme Court considered Tuesday whether a defendant can be retried when a judge issues a directed verdict of acquittal based on a mistaken interpretation of the law.

The Michigan Supreme Court had ruled that defendant Lamar Evans could be retried because the acquittal was based on a mistake of law rather than factual elements of the offense, report Reuters and the Associated Press. Evans had been charged with setting fire to a vacant house.

AP says the court appeared ready to rule on behalf of Evans, while Reuters said the justices “appeared torn.”

The trial judge had ruled Evans must be acquitted of arson because the statute used to charge him required proof that the burned building was not a “dwelling house,” according to the cert petition. Michigan appeals courts said the interpretation was wrong and Evans could be retried.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. appeared sympathetic to prosecutors, according to both stories. “We’ve said the government gets one fair shot at conviction,” Roberts 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 Antonin Scalia, on the other hand, appeared skeptical of a government argument that a new trial should be allowed because the judge acquitted based on the urging of Evans’ lawyer, according to the AP account. “Counsel often encourage judges to do the wrong thing. In fact, in every case, there is one of the two counsel urging the court to do the wrong thing, right?” Scalia said.

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