WASHINGTON, DC — The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that a criminal defendant may be retried even though the jury in his first trial had unanimously rejected the most serious charges against him. The vote was 6 to 3, with the justices split over whether the constitutional protection against double jeopardy barred such reprosecutions.
The case arose from the death in 2007 of a 1-year-old Arkansas boy, Matthew McFadden Jr., from a head injury while he was at home with his mother’s boyfriend, Alex Blueford. The prosecution said Mr. Blueford had slammed Matthew into a mattress; Mr. Blueford said he had accidentally knocked the boy to the floor.
Mr. Blueford was charged under four theories, in decreasing order of seriousness: capital murder (though the state did not seek the death penalty), first-degree murder, manslaughter and negligent homicide.
The jurors were instructed to consider the most serious charge first and move to the next only if they agreed unanimously that Mr. Blueford was not guilty. In this way, they were to work their way down to the appropriate conviction, or to an acquittal.
After a few hours of deliberation, the jurors announced that they were deadlocked. The forewoman told the judge that the jury had unanimously agreed that Mr. Blueford was not guilty of capital or first-degree murder but was divided, 9 to 3, in favor of guilt on the manslaughter charge.
The jury deliberated for another half-hour but could not reach a verdict. The court declared a mistrial.
Prosecutors sought to retry Mr. Blueford on all four charges. His lawyers agreed that he could be retried on the less serious ones but said double jeopardy principles should preclude his retrial for capital murder and first-degree murder.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, said Mr. Blueford could be retried on all of the charges because “the foreperson’s report was not a final resolution of anything.” When the jurors returned to their deliberations after the forewoman spoke, he said, they could have changed their minds about the two more serious charges.
“The fact that deliberations continued after the report deprives that report of the finality necessary to constitute an acquittal on the murder offenses,” the chief justice wrote. Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Stephen G. Breyer and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined the majority opinion.
Mr. Blueford’s lawyers also argued that the trial judge should not have declared a mistrial without first asking the jury whether, in the end, the defendant had been found not guilty of some charges. Chief Justice Roberts said the judge had acted appropriately, as “the jury’s options in this case were limited to two: eitiher convict on one of the offenses, or aqcuit on all.”
In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the majority had improperly given prosecutors “the proverbial second bite at the apple.”
“The forewoman’s announcement in open court that the jury was ‘unanimous against’ conviction on capital and first-degree murder,” she wrote, “was an acquittal for double jeopardy purposes.”
Justice Sotomayor said the trial judge should have asked for a partial verdict from the jury before declaring a mistrial. She added that the protections of the Constitution’s double jeopardy clause were needed in light of “the threat to individual freedom from reprosecutions that favor states and unfairly rescue them from weak cases.”
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan joined the dissent in the case, Blueford v. Arkansas, No. 10-1320.