The Fifth Amendment says a person can’t be prosecuted twice for the same offense. So after a jury comes back with a verdict, if the government doesn’t like that verdict, then too bad, it doesn’t get a do-over. This is called “Double Jeopardy,” from the language of the Amendment saying you can’t “be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.”
Sometimes, Double Jeopardy applies even when the jury never reached a verdict. Usually, if the judge declares a mistrial, there’s no jeopardy problem and everyone does the trial over again. But there are exceptions, such as when the mistrial was caused by prosecutorial misconduct. Or when a judge orders a mistrial for no good reason. There’s a presumption that judges shouldn’t go around declaring mistrials, that cases should be allowed to go to verdict. So when a judge calls “mistrial” for no good reason, the defendant isn’t going to be forced to go through the whole thing all over again.
[Aside: We had that happen in one of our cases, when we were a prosecutor. In the middle of a drug trial, we were severely injured in a motorcycle accident (and by “severely,” we mean “it took 6 weeks to stabilize to the point where they could do surgery to put the bones back in”), and as a result we couldn’t finish the trial. Drug cases being all pretty much alike, and prosecutors being pretty much fungible, the DA’s office sent over another lawyer to finish out the case. The judge instead declared a mistrial, over the objections of both sides. The office wound up having to consent to dismissal on Double Jeopardy grounds. Whaddayagonnado.]
Back in 1824, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Perez that one good reason the judge can declare a mistrial is when the jury is deadlocked. When the jury cannot reach a decision, it’s not like the defendant’s being screwed by an unfair judge or an abusive prosecutor. So a judge is allowed to ask for a do-over with a different jury.
“To be sure,” the Court said, “the power ought to be used with the greatest caution, under urgent circumstances, and for very plain and obvious cases….”
So that brings us to the case of Renico v. Lett, argued this morning before the Supreme Court (you can read the transcript here).
Reginald Lett was on trial for murder. The case was presented intermittently, five days out of two weeks, and the jury finally got to start deliberations at 3:24 p.m. on a Thursday. They deliberated for 36 minutes, then went home. On Friday (the 13th), they came in, deliberated for a mere four hours, and sent out a note. The note didn’t say they were deadlocked, but merely asked what would happen “if we can’t agree? Mistrial? Retrial? What?”
The judge brought the jury out and asked “is there a disagreement as to the verdict?” The foreperson said yes. The judge badgered the foreperson a bit, insisting on her predicting whether the jury could reach a unanimous verdict, and finally the foreperson said “no.” The judge immediately declared a mistrial.
Now this was highly unusual. Most judges, in our experience, give a supposedly deadlocked jury a few chances to go back and reach a verdict (three seems to be the magic number here in New York City). We’ve had jurors shouting at each other so loud that everyone could hear them plainly out in the courtroom. All that meant to anyone involved, however, was that they actually were deliberating. A zesty exchange of ideas is still an exchange of ideas….