What do you think of when you hear the term “double jeopardy?” If you’re like many Americans, your first association with the term is probably the television game show “Jeopardy.” In that context, double jeopardy is the round in which clue values are worth twice as much money as in the previous round.
The more important meaning of double jeopardy, however, is the Constitutional right related to criminal defense. This portion of the Fifth Amendment says that Americans cannot be tried twice on the same or similar criminal charges if they have been either legitimately acquitted or legitimately convicted on those charges. The Constitutional protection against double jeopardy probably doesn’t get discussed very often because it is a somewhat rare occurrence in the American criminal justice system.
That being said, the Virginia Court of Appeals recently applied a legal doctrine based on double jeopardy in its decision to reverse one defendant’s murder conviction. The charges were related to an incident in 2008 in which someone was shot and killed while sitting in a parked car at a nightclub in Surry County.
The defendant was initially charged with reckless handling of a firearm; a misdemeanor. Someone had fired at least 10 rounds into the car during the incident, but since prosecutors could not prove that the defendant had been the shooter, he was acquitted.
The defendant was later charged with and convicted of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder. These charges were based upon the same incident for which the defendant had previously been acquitted.
The three-judge panel recently ruled that because prosecutors in the first case could not prove that he was the shooter, the defendant could not legitimately be convicted of murder.
Double jeopardy cases are rare. But as this case shows, the Constitutional protection against double jeopardy is an important one that could significantly impact a defendant’s fate.
Source: WTOP, “Appeals court reverses Surry murder conviction,” Feb. 25, 2014