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Atlanta Criminal Defense Lawyers > Blog > Criminal Defense > Supreme Court Bars Georgia from Retrying Mentally Ill Defendant

Supreme Court Bars Georgia from Retrying Mentally Ill Defendant


The Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment provides an important constitutional protection for anyone accused of a crime. In simple terms, the state cannot retry a person if they have already been “put in jeopardy of life or limb”–i.e., a trial has begun–and found not guilty. Put another way, the state does not get a do-over in the event of an acquittal.

Justice Jackson: “An Acquittal Is an Acquittal”

The United States Supreme Court recently held the Double Jeopardy Clause barred the State of Georgia from retrying a man who was found not guilty under an unusual–and admittedly confusing–jury verdict. The case, McElrath v. Georgia, stemmed from the 2012 killing of a woman by her 18-year-old adopted son. The defendant, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, suffered from a number of unfounded delusions. Among them was the belief that his mother had been poisoning his food. After killing her, the defendant called the police and confessed, stating, “I killed my mom because she poisoned me.”

The state charged the defendant with three crimes arising from the victim’s death: malice murder, felony murder, and aggravated assault. At trial, the defendant asserted an insanity defense. Under Georgia law, a jury can find a defendant “not guilty by reason of insanity” or “guilty but mentally ill.” The former leads to a defendant’s commitment to a mental health facility until released by a judge. The latter sends the defendant to jail but gives the Department of Corrections the option to temporarily refer a defendant to a mental health facility.

In this case, the jury found the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity on the charge of malice murder. But it also found the defendant guilty but mentally ill on the felony murder and aggravated assault charges. The trial judge sentenced the defendant to life in prison for the two convictions.

On appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court found the verdicts were “repugnant” under Georgia law. That is to say, there was no way to reconcile accepting the defendant’s insanity defense on malice murder but still finding him guilty of felony murder for the exact same killing. So the Court vacated both verdicts and ordered a new trial.

This eventually led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s intervention. The defendant argued that since the jury already found him not guilty of malice murder, he could not be retried on that charge, since double jeopardy had already attached. The state argued that since “there was no valid verdict” in the first place, there was no acquittal and thus no double jeopardy.

The Supreme Court unanimously sided with the defendant. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, writing for the Court, said that even if Georgia law might consider the not guilty verdict void in this situation, federal law did not. “An acquittal is an acquittal” under the Double Jeopardy Clause, Jackson said, even when a jury returned an otherwise inconsistent verdict on other charges. So Georgia could not retry the defendant for malice murder.

Contact Hawkins Spizman Trial Lawyers Today

When your freedom is at stake, you should never hesitate to assert your constitutional and legal rights to a fair trial. Our qualified Atlanta criminal defense attorneys can advise and represent you. Contact Hawkins Spizman Trial Lawyers today to schedule a free consultation. We serve clients throughout Georgia including Atlanta, Dunwoody, Alpharetta, Cobb County, Fulton County, Gwinnett County, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs.



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