Guest Essayist: Professor Joerg Knipprath, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School

Amendment V:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

The 1999 movie Double Jeopardy, starring Ashley Judd and Tommie Lee Jones, focused on a wife who was wrongfully convicted of murdering her husband who had staged his own killing. One theme suggested by the title and by some scenes of prison lawyering is that, having once been convicted of murder, the wife could not be tried again if she now murdered her husband. Hardly.

The protection against double jeopardy is deemed a fundamental human right with a tradition well-entrenched in Western Civilization going back at least to ancient Roman law. The doctrine was part of the English common law long before the Constitution, although, curiously, express double jeopardy protections were not well-represented in the early state constitutions or in the proposals for amendments submitted by the state conventions that ratified the Constitution. Incidentally, the phrase “life or limb” today is read as “life or [physical] liberty,” since drawing-and-quartering and other punishments that produce corporal maiming have gone out of style and would likely constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the 8th Amendment.

In Green v. U.S. in 1957, the Supreme Court justified the doctrine as reflecting

“the underlying idea…that the State with all its resources and power should not be allowed to make repeated attempts to convict an individual for an alleged offense, thereby subjecting him to embarrassment, expense, and ordeal compelling him to live in a continuing state of anxiety and insecurity, as well as enhancing the possibility that even though innocent he may be found guilty.”

On that last point, if the state gets numerous turns at bat, it only needs to be successful once, which produces significant incentive to try repeatedly. At the very least, such tactics will cause more defendants, emotionally and financially exhausted and faced with the deeper resources of taxpayer-funded prosecutors, to enter factually dubious guilty pleas.

The clause raises several questions. First, when does jeopardy “attach”? Second, what exactly can the government not do? Third, what exceptions are there?

Jeopardy attaches when a jury is empanelled and sworn. If the trial is to a judge only, it attaches when the first witness is sworn. If there is a guilty plea, it attaches when the court accepts the plea. An acquittal by the judge or jury bars the government from appeal because a retrial for that offense would violate the double jeopardy rule.

Notice that the government cannot retry the offender for the same offense. What if a defendant is acquitted of robbery, which combines larceny (taking and carrying away another’s personal property without consent and with the intent to deprive him of the property permanently) and assault (intentionally creating a reasonable apprehension of immediate bodily injury)? Can the prosecutor now seek to try the defendant for larceny and/or assault arising out of the same criminal act? The common sense reaction is “no.” That is also the legal stance, because two crimes constitute the “same offense,” unless each of them has at least one additional element that is different from the other. Here, while robbery has a different element than either larceny or assault (since it is a combination of the two), neither larceny nor assault has any additional element from robbery. A prosecutor who has failed in a prior trial cannot proceed against the same defendant for a “lesser-and-included” offense.

Likewise, a prosecutor who, for example, successfully prosecuted a defendant for larceny and has that conviction under his belt subsequently cannot roll the dice again and seek to try that defendant for the greater crime of robbery out of the same transaction. The lone exception to that rule is that a prosecution for battery (unlawfully using force against another that causes bodily injury) does not bar a subsequent trial for murder if the victim eventually succumbs to his wounds from the attack.

While the rule gives defendants some basic and significant protections, it is also riddled with exceptions and qualifications. In that vein, a hung jury is no bar to retrial. Neither are certain motions for mistrial by the defendant where the mistrial is not caused by prosecutorial misconduct. For example, conditions arise that make a continuing fair trial impossible in that location. There is also generally no violation of double jeopardy for a retrial if the defendant appealed and was successful in overturning the earlier verdict, or if the prosecution successfully appealed a trial court dismissal of the case when there was no acquittal but the trial court based its decision on a legal motion.

Significantly, double jeopardy does not apply to non-criminal proceedings. A public official who is impeached and removed from office for a crime can also be prosecuted for that act under the criminal law. In similar vein, a defendant who is convicted or acquitted in a criminal trial can be sued by the victim for a civil wrong. A notorious example of that is the former football star and advertising pitchman O.J. Simpson. Despite his acquittal of murder charges for the killing of his estranged wife and another victim, he was subsequently found liable for civil damages for “wrongful death.”

Returning to our movie, yet another exception shows the lack of reliability of jailhouse lawyering (or of Hollywood screenwriters). The double jeopardy clause does not apply to different sovereigns. Conviction or acquittal under the laws of one sovereign does not bar a different sovereign from prosecuting the defendant under its law for the same charge arising out of the same conduct if the conduct affected that sovereign. Although they usually avoid duplication, the state of California could prosecute a drug dealer for violation of its drug laws and then turn the perpetrator over to the federal government for prosecution under federal drug laws. A version of that was the 1993 federal prosecution of four Los Angeles police officers for violation of federal civil rights laws arising out of the use of excessive force in arresting Rodney King in 1991. The officers had mostly been acquitted in a 1992 state prosecution arising out of the same incident.

The legal assumptions of the movie are flawed. Being wrongfully convicted of murder may entitle the defendant to civil damages from the government. But it does not create a dispensation from prosecution for a subsequent murder. The Constitution has no “get-out-of-jail-free-for-murder” coupons to be redeemed as the occasion demands. More pertinent, had Louisiana prosecuted the movie’s protagonist for the murder of her husband, the prior prosecution by the state of Washington would not have placed her twice in jeopardy of life or limb for the same offense.

An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums. Read more from Professor Knipprath at:

March 15, 2012 

Essay #19 

1 reply
  1. Marc W. Stauffer
    Marc W. Stauffer says:

    Very thankful that the experiences the Founders had with English law led them to develop ours in such a way that we as a people are not over-run by our judicial system. We need to be diligent to ensure it remains this way.


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