The finality of acquittals

In the wake of the George Zimmerman acquittal, a lot of searches brought people to my blog in their attempt to find information on how to overturn that acquittal. Those searches prompted me to write an article declaring that Zimmerman’s acquittal is final, going on the numerous articles I’ve written about Casey Anthony and how her acquittal is final as well.

But one question came via a search term that has not really been discussed to any great depth: why is a jury’s acquittal final?

To answer this question, we need to look at the concept of “double jeopardy”, which is codified in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, chiefly: “[N]or shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb”.

In the United States, the finality of an acquittal is unconditional, as recognized in virtually every State and in the Federal jurisdiction, and on that we should be pleased. It means that the prosecutor representing a sovereign has only one chance to try a defendant with a crime within the applicable statute of limitations.

The Supreme Court of the United States summarized the double jeopardy doctrine beautifully in the case United States v. Sanges, 144 US 310 (1892). The Supreme Court discussed in their opinion in that case the finality of an acquittal by going through all of the various decisions by the Supreme Courts of various States, almost all of which were of the opinion that the government cannot appeal an acquittal or otherwise seek to overturn or vacate an acquittal.

That case dismissed an acquittal appeal merely for lack of jurisdiction, leaving open to Congress the ability to grant the Executive Branch the ability to appeal acquittals by merely passing a simple statute outlining an appeals procedure. The Court enumerated such several times in their decision in Sanges, noting that the appellate jurisdiction of the appeals courts and the Supreme Court is established and regulated by Congress (see Article III, Section 1 of the Constitution), and that the inability for the United States to appeal an acquittal is merely because such jurisdiction hasn’t been granted to any appellate court to hear such an appeal.

But the Supreme Court squashed completely that idea with regard to the Federal jurisdiction in a subsequent case, United States v. Ball, 163 US 662 (1896), at 671:

As to the defendant who had been acquitted by the verdict duly returned and received, the court could take no other action than to order his discharge. The verdict of acquittal was final, and could not be reviewed, on error or otherwise, without putting him twice in jeopardy, and thereby violating the Constitution. However it may be in England, in this country a verdict of acquittal, although not followed by any judgment, is a bar to a subsequent prosecution for the same offence.

In both cases, again, the Supreme Court relied heavily upon the established jurisprudence in most States in existence at the time, and it is now very heavily settled precedent that an acquittal, lawfully returned by the jury and received by the Court, cannot be appealed by the prosecution, or in any other way sought to be overturned, vacated or challenged. The Supreme Court very plainly states that reviewing an acquittal, the essence of an appeal, violates double jeopardy.

Thus is locked in stone the unconditional finality of an acquittal at a criminal trial.