WASHINGTON -- Arkansas is not barred by the Constitution's double jeopardy clause from retrying a man for murder even though the first jury had announced it was unanimously against the charge, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday morning.
Alex Blueford was charged with capital murder and its three "lesser included" offenses -- first-degree murder, manslaughter and negligent homicide -- for the 2007 death of his girlfriend's one-year-old son. Under Arkansas law, the jury could either convict Blueford of one of those offenses or acquit him of them all. The jury, per the judge's instructions, considered each offense from most to least serious.
After several hours of deliberations, the jurors reported they were "hopelessly" deadlocked. At the judge's request, they clarified in open court that they were unanimously against the capital murder and first-degree murder charges, remained split over the manslaughter charge, and had yet to consider the negligent homicide charge. The judge sent them back for further deliberations. When the jurors still could not reach a verdict, the judge declared a mistrial.
Arkansas then attempted to retry Blueford on the capital murder and first-degree murder charges. He cried foul, pointing to the jury's unanimous votes against those charges in the first trial and arguing that the state was trying to get a constitutionally prohibited second bite at the apple. The Arkansas Supreme Court rejected his appeal.
By a 6-3 vote in Blueford v. Arkansas, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, finding that the jury's disclosed votes did not constitute an acquittal that would trigger the double jeopardy clause. "The foreperson's report was not a final resolution of anything," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts on behalf of himself and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Stephen Breyer.
The justices also found that the trial judge did not act unreasonably in declaring a mistrial rather than granting Blueford's request for a partial acquittal based on the jury's unanimity on the two higher charges. "As permitted under Arkansas law, the jury's options in this case were limited to two: either convict on one of the offenses, or acquit on all," wrote Roberts.
"The jury in this case did not convict Blueford of any offense, but it did not acquit him of any either," the Supreme Court concluded.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, dissented. "[N]othing indicates that the jury's announced decisions were tentative, compromises, or mere steps en route to a final verdict, and the Double Jeopardy Clause demands that ambiguity be resolved in favor of the defendant," Sotomayor wrote.
Pointing to decisions from courts in six states with criminal conviction procedures similar to those in Arkansas, Sotomayor further argued that "the Double Jeopardy Clause requires a trial judge, in an acquittal-first jurisdiction, to honor a defendant's request for a partial verdict before declaring a mistrial on the ground of jury deadlock."
Then she hearkened back to the Founders, who included the double jeopardy clause in response to prosecutorial abuses by the English crown. Sotomayor concluded, "This case demonstrates that the threat to individual freedom from reprosecutions that favor States and unfairly rescue them from weak cases has not waned with time. Only this Court's vigilance has."