Supreme Court sides with Georgia man on double jeopardy claim

The Supreme Court sided with a Georgia man’s double jeopardy claim on Wednesday after a jury acquitted him by reason of insanity for one count related to the murder of his adoptive mother, even though the jury convicted him on other counts.

In a decision reached unanimously on Wednesday, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote for the court that the jury’s determination that Damian McElrath was not guilty of malice murder due to insanity serves as a verdict of acquittal under the principle of double jeopardy, regardless of any disparities with the jury’s decisions on other charges.

Ketanji Brown Jackson, nominated to be a U.S. Circuit Judge for the District of Columbia Circuit, testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on pending judicial nominations on Capitol Hill, April 28, 2021, in Washington, DC.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson on Capitol Hill on April 28, 2021, in Washington, D.C. | (Photo by Kevin Lamarque-Pool/Getty Images)

“We have long recognized that, while an acquittal might reflect a jury’s determination that the defendant is innocent of the crime charged, such a verdict might also be ‘the result of compromise, compassion, lenity, or misunderstanding of the governing law,’” Jackson wrote.

The case focuses on whether a Georgia man who was convicted and acquitted of different homicide and assault charges can be prosecuted again. McElrath was prosecuted in Georgia for killing his adoptive mother 11 years ago, and a jury found McElrath not guilty by reason of insanity on the equivalent of a first-degree murder charge, although the jury found him guilty of two lesser charges.

Georgia’s Supreme Court later held that a person cannot be declared insane and sane for committing the same act. The state’s high court threw out the verdicts and said McElrath could be retried on all charges.

Regardless of the basis for the jury’s disparities on the other charges, the double jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibits “second-guessing the reason for a jury’s acquittal,” Jackson, an appointee of President Joe Biden, added in her decision.

“As a result, ‘the jury holds an unreviewable power to return a verdict of not guilty even for impermissible reasons,’” Jackson wrote.

Justice Samuel Alito, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, wrote a concurring opinion in which he stated plainly: “Because the Constitution does not permit appellate review of an acquittal, the State Supreme Court’s decision must be reversed.”

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However, Alito did note that as he understands it, “our holding extends no further.”

“Nothing that we say today should be understood to express any view about whether a not-guilty verdict that is inconsistent with a verdict on another count and is not accepted by the trial judge constitutes an ‘acquittal’ for double jeopardy purposes,” Alito added.

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