Overturning a “Not guilty” verdict

This is one delusion that needs to be nipped in the bud. Plenty of people are under the delusion that a judge can overturn a “not guilty” verdict returned by a jury. And I know from reading around that this is due to a major confusion regarding our entire court system, not just the criminal justice system.

One such case that has been cited to support the idea of a judge vacating an acquittal is a case in Illinois in 2006 involving Chicago Rail Link. In 2003, Gary Pierce, then 26 at the time, was struck by a moving locomotive, suffering some major injuries as a result. When Pierce sued his employer in Federal court, the court initially ruled for the defendant, Chicago Rail Link. This is how the law firm Pierce retained described the outcome (emphasis added):1

After two weeks of presenting evidence of CRL’s negligence, the jury was asked whether CRL violated the two Radio Rules. The jury answered “No” to both questions and returned a ‘not guilty‘ verdict in favor of CRL, based in large part upon a novel and distorted interpretation of the Radio Rules argued by CRL’s attorneys at trial.

This description is a distortion.

First in a civil case such as a lawsuit, the jury does not hand down a verdict of “guilty” or “not guilty”. Instead the jury is asked to evaluate several questions against the evidence and determine, by a preponderance of that evidence, the likely answers to those questions. With the above quoted case, the jury was asked to determine if Chicago Rail Link violated two rules.

Civil cases have much, much more lenient standards at play – and the only provision of the Bill of Rights that comes into play is the right to have that dispute heard by a jury. However civil cases never involve cases where a person’s liberty may be taken away. They are never subject to any jeopardy. As such, a jury’s verdict in a civil trial can be overturned, even by the original trial judge, regardless of in which direction the jury ruled.

So in the above case, the jury never acquitted the railroad of anything. Merely the jury originally determined that the railroad was not at fault for the injuries Mr. Pierce sustained while on the job. A motion with the judge allowed the verdict to be vacated, and a new trial was ordered.

Yet many are attempting to use a civil case as an example of how to get a verdict of “not guilty” in a criminal trial overturned. Again the law firm’s use of the words “not guilty” in reference to the verdict in the railroad’s favor was a gross distortion.

The closest example in a criminal trial that I could find to an attempt to get an acquittal vacated occurred in January 2009 in the State of West Virginia.2 In the case State of WV v. Lincoln Stuart Taylor, Taylor was brought to trial on two charges: murder, and conspiracy to commit murder. After a two week trial, the jury had allegedly deadlocked on the murder charge, but returned a verdict of “not guilty” on the conspiracy charge. The judge so entered the verdict into the record, acquitting Taylor on conspiracy to commit murder.

However, according to a motion filed by the prosecuting attorney, evidence surfaced after the fact to indicate that the verdict entered into the record by the judge was not the verdict properly returned by the jury. The motion sought to have that verdict vacated and a mistrial on the conspiracy charge declared and, if that could not occur, then the jury should at least be deposed. Nothing appears to have come of the motion, however, and it’s likely nothing would have come of it. Such a motion is equivalent to asking the judge to vacate an acquittal, something no judge can do.

Never, as I’ve already discussed, never can a judge set aside an acquittal, yet too many people do not want to believe that, especially with regard to cases like OJ Simpson and, most recently, Casey Anthony. Now I’m open to be surprised – and this would be one hell of a surprise. If you can find a genuine case in the United States where a judge presiding over a criminal trial has set aside a jury’s verdict of “not guilty”, I welcome the presentation. I’d even be willing to put money on it, but I don’t like to gamble, even though this would quite literally be the equivalent of a sure bet.

Let the gauntlet be set: I welcome anyone, anywhere in the world, to present to me a case where a criminal court judge in the United States has set aside a jury’s verdict of “not guilty”.

Follow-up: The finality of acquittals

  1. Farina, James. “Jury’s ‘Not Guilty’ Verdict Overturned By Federal Trial Judge“. Hoey & Farina, PC. []
  2. Kiley, Karen. (2009, January 22). “Taylor ‘Not Guilty’ verdict could be overturned“. []