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Arizona Court Reversed Defendant’s Murder Conviction Based on Double-Jeopardy Violation

Recently, the Arizona Supreme Court issued a written opinion in an Arizona homicide case discussing whether the defendant’s conviction for murder was invalid based on a double-jeopardy violation. The Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” While the language used in the clause is somewhat archaic, this case illustrates that the principles behind the clause are as essential today as they ever were.

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was tried for murder in 2013, after he shot his neighbor. Evidently, the neighbor approached the defendant after the defendant asked him to leave. The defendant testified that he believed the neighbor was armed.

After the parties presented their cases, the jury could not agree on whether the defendant was guilty of first-degree murder, marking the box “unable to agree” next to the first-degree murder charge. The jury found the defendant guilty of second-degree murder, and the court sentenced him to 16 years incarceration. An appellate court later reversed the conviction based on procedural grounds, remanding the case for a new trial.

The state then retried the defendant for first-degree murder. The defendant objected, arguing that the prosecution for first-degree murder was precluded by the Double Jeopardy Clause. The court allowed the retrial, and the defendant was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

The defendant appealed, again arguing that the prosecution for first-degree murder violated his constitutional rights under the Double Jeopardy Clause. The defendant argued that the 2013 trial fully resolved the question of whether he was guilty of first-degree murder because the jury failed to convict him of the offense. The prosecution argued that a retrial is permissible in the event of a hung jury, and the jury’s marking of the box “unable to agree” indicated that it was hung.

The court ultimately sided with the defendant, noting that “it is not essential that a verdict of guilt or innocence be returned for a defendant to have once been placed in jeopardy to bar a second trial on the same charge.” The court likened the case to a U.S. Supreme Court opinion in which the jury was silent as to the lead charge, and convicted on a lesser-included offense. The court acknowledged that here, the jury was not exactly silent when it checked the box marked “unable to agree,” but considered the jury’s decision an implied acquittal.

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