Inconsistent Verdicts Don’t Negate Double Jeopardy in Blocking Murder Case Retrial - SCOTUS Today

Epstein Becker & Green

Epstein Becker & Green

Most readers of this blog rarely, if ever, become involved in homicide cases.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s essentially unanimous decision in McElrath v. Georgia should be of interest because it deals with the issue of inconsistent verdicts, something that many of us have experienced, but this time, as such verdicts might affect double jeopardy. Damian McElrath was charged with malice murder, felony murder, and aggravated assault for having killed his mother. A jury returned a split verdict against him, finding him “not guilty by reason of insanity” with respect to malice murder but “guilty but mentally ill” as to the other two counts.

The Supreme Court of Georgia determined that the felony murder verdict was “repugnant” to the “not guilty by reason of insanity verdict” on the malice murder count because Georgia law requires findings of different mental states for these offenses that cannot exist at the same time. Accordingly, the Georgia court vacated the verdicts on both counts and ordered a retrial. The Supreme Court of the United States (Jackson, J., writing for eight justices, with Alito, J., concurring) reversed, holding that the jury’s verdict that Mr. McElrath was not guilty of malice murder by reason of insanity constituted an acquittal for double jeopardy purposes, notwithstanding any inconsistency with the jury’s other verdicts. The Court held that whether an acquittal for double jeopardy purposes has occurred is a matter of federal law, and the jury’s verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity is “unquestionably” an acquittal. In sum, “[a]n acquittal is an acquittal, even when a jury returns inconsistent verdicts.”

I note this case not just because I try (except where I might have a conflict) to discuss every Supreme Court decision. With respect to the McElrath case, I admit to having less interest in the double jeopardy claim itself (though Mr. McElrath no doubt is very interested in it) than in the issue of inconsistent verdicts. As Justice Alito accurately states in his concurrence, the Court recognizes that various states allow trial judges to refuse to accept inconsistent verdicts and may send a jury back to deliberate further. That proposition was not at issue here because the malice murder verdict was indisputably an acquittal. So, we are left with the recognition that in some criminal cases, a trial court can demand the resolution of inconsistent verdicts unless one of them rises to definitive constitutional proportions as a judgment of acquittal.

But what about civil cases? Is there an analog? I expect that some future parties—plaintiffs or defendants—will attempt to argue by analogy to McElrath that there are some judgments—say, with respect to the element of intent—that should be held to stand, notwithstanding inconsistencies with other counts of a complaint. Admittedly, that is something of a stretch, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

In another case, Great Lakes Insurance SE v. Raiders Retreat Realty Co., a unanimous Court held that choice-of-law provisions in maritime contracts are presumptively enforceable under federal maritime law, with narrow exceptions that were not applicable in the instant case. The decision derives from Article III’s grant of federal jurisdiction to “all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction,” which contemplates a uniform system of maritime law across the country. See Norfolk Southern R. Co. v. James N. Kirby, Pty Ltd., 543 U. S. 14, 28 (2004).

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