The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] 6-3 Wednesday in Blueford v. Arkansas [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that the double jeopardy [Cornell LII backgrounder] clause does not prevent the re-prosecution of a greater offense if a jury deadlocks on a lesser-included offense. In this case, a mistrial was declared after a jury reached a unanimous decision to acquit on capital murder and first-degree murder but was deadlocked on lesser charges, including manslaughter. When the state attempted to retry Alex Blueford, he argued that Double Jeopardy had attached to the greater charges the jury would have acquitted him on. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, disagreed, stating that any time in future theoretical deliberations, the jury was free to change its mind on those charges. Thus, no final verdict was ever reached to which Double Jeopardy could attach:
A simple example illustrates the point. A jury enters the jury room, having just been given these instructions. The foreperson decides that it would make sense to determine the extent of the jurors' agreement before discussions begin. Accordingly, she conducts a vote on capital murder, and everyone votes against guilt. She does the same for first-degree murder, and again, everyone votes against guilt. She then calls for a vote on manslaughter, and there is disagreement. Only then do the jurors engage in a discussion about the circumstances of the crime. While considering the arguments of the other jurors on how the death was caused, one of the jurors starts rethinking his own stance on a greater offense. After reflecting on the evidence, he comes to believe that the defendant did knowingly cause the death—satisfying the definition of first-degree murder. At that point, nothing in the instructions prohibits the jury from doing what juries often do: revisit a prior vote. "The very object of the jury system." after all, "is to secure unanimity by a comparison of views, and by arguments among the jurors themselves." A single juror's change of mind is all it takes to require the jury to reconsider a greater offense.The court affirmed the decision [opinion text] of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent, which was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. She argued that a clear resolution on the two more major charges was reached, especially considering Arkansas' instructions that decisions must be made in order of the charges' severity. "In ascertaining whether an acquittal has occurred, 'form is not to be exalted over substance.' Rather, we ask whether the factfinder has made 'a substantive determination that the prosecution has failed to carry its burden.' Jurisdictions have different procedures respecting the announcement of verdicts and the entry of judgments, but that diversity has no constitutional significance. ... In this context, the forewoman's announcement in open court that the jury was 'unanimous against' conviction on capital and first-degree murder was an acquittal for double jeopardy purposes. Per Arkansas law, the jury's determination of reasonable doubt as to those offenses was an acquittal 'in essence.'" The Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case in October and heard oral arguments [JURIST reports] in January.