Inconsistent Verdicts and Double Jeopardy (Part 1)

by | Apr 11, 2024 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On February 21, 2024, a unanimous United States Supreme Court decided the case of Mcelrath v. Georgia. The principal issue concerned whether a jury verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity constituted an acquittal for double jeopardy purposes notwithstanding its inconsistency with the jury’s other verdicts.

Justice Jackson wrote for the Court in relevant part: After petitioner Damian McElrath killed his mother, the State of Georgia charged him with three crimes related to her death: malice murder, felony murder, and aggravated assault. At trial, the jury returned a split verdict against McElrath: “not guilty by reason of insanity” with respect to malice-murder, and “guilty but mentally ill” as to the other counts. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Georgia determined that the jury’s “guilty but mentally ill” verdict for felony murder was “repugnant” to the jury’s “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict for malice murder under Georgia law, because the verdicts “required affirmative findings of different mental states that could not exist at the same time.” See 308 Ga. 104, 112, 839 S. E. 2d 573, 579. The court vacated both the malice-murder and felony-murder verdicts pursuant to Georgia’s so-called repugnancy doctrine, and authorized retrial. Ibid., 839 S. E. 2d, at 580.

On remand, McElrath argued that the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment prohibited Georgia from retrying him for malice murder given the jury’s prior “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict on that charge. The Georgia courts rejected that argument.

The jury’s verdict that 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 Double Jeopardy Clause provides that “no person shall be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” U. S. Const., Amdt. 5. “It has long been settled under the Fifth Amendment that a verdict of acquittal is final, ending a defendant’s jeopardy, and is a bar to a subsequent prosecution for the same offence.” Green v. United States, 355 U. S. 184, 188.

The Georgia Supreme Court reasoned it was not legally possible for McElrath to simultaneously be both sane (guilty but mentally ill) and insane (not guilty by reason of insanity) during the single episode of stabbing his mother. Two justices “concurred” in the decision but expressed doubt that it would withstand double jeopardy scrutiny. The concurrence was likely relying on the fact that the United States Supreme Court only hears a very small percentage of cases that petition to be heard.