The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear an especially interesting 5th Amendment Double Jeopardy case. Not especially interesting because of the legal issue, but especially interesting because of how clear the 5th Amendment violation was. Now the facts of the case are not very pleasant. Alex Blueford had been charged in Arkansas with the murder of his girlfriend’s 19 month old child. Prosecutors alleged that Blueford hit the 19 month old so hard that his eyes bled and brain swelled so much that he died. Blueford admitted that he had struck the child with his elbow but only by accident after the child startled him from behind. He also admitted that he lied to hospital personnel because he was afraid that they would not believe him. After 4 1/2 hours of deliberations the jury sent a note to the judge that they were having trouble deciding on the capital murder charge. The jury went back into court and informed the judge that they had voted 12-0 for acquittal on the capital murder charge. They then informed the judge that they had voted 12-0 for acquittal on the first degree murder charge but were split on the misdemeanor manslaughter charge. The jury had not even discussed the fourth charge, negligent homicide, which was also a misdemeanor. So the jury had decided on not guilty on the murder charges but had not even considered the misdemeanor charges. Even if they had found Blueford guilty of the misdemeanor charges he would have been released from prison because he had already served enough time in jail to satisfy any possible jail sentence that could be imposed. Blueford’s attorneys asked that the judge announce the verdicts on the murder charges but the judge refused, instructing the jury to go back and deliberate on the misdemeanor charges. When the jury informed the judge that they were deadlocked on the misdemeanor charges he declared a mistrial. Prosecutors immediately sought to retry Blueford for the murder and Blueford appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court claiming that Blueford’s 5th Amendment rights against Double Jeopardy were being violated. In a surprising decision, the Arkansas Supreme Court disagreed and found that the foreperson’s statements in court that they had reached unanimous verdicts on the murder charges was not an actual verdict because they were not written down on paper and entered into the official court record. They further found that the mere reading of a jury’s verdict in open court did not amount to an official verdict until the judge accepts it and enters the order.
It is clear from the facts of the case that the trial judge was not happy with the fact that this defendant was going to walk free on these serious charges and manipulated the law to avoid an ending that he was not happy with. Like it or not, Blueford had won his case and the trial court took his victory away from him. Many briefs have been filed by law professors and groups outraged that the Fifth Amendment was so clearly manipulated and violated in this case. The role of the judge is to apply the law and not make the law.
In reviewing news releases about this case I was struck at the different descriptions of the case in different news articles. One news article mentions that the jury foreperson made an “offhand remark” to the judge in open court that the jury had decided 12-0 for acquittal on the murder charges. But the fact is that nobody is disputing that the jury had voted 12-0 for acquittal, not even the prosecutors who are opposing Blueford’s appeal. So whether this was an “offhand remark” in open court is irrelevant. It is undisputed that the jury had found Blueford not guilty of murder. Language used in a newspaper article to minimize the importance of the fact that he was found not guilty is clearly an attempt by certain media outlets to minimize the fact that he was found not guilty by a jury of his peers. It is clear that the court was searching for legal technicalities to avoid having the jury’s verdict become final.
James Dimeas is an award winning criminal defense attorney and author with more than 24 years of experience aggressively representing his clients in criminal cases. If you have a criminal case in Illinois, contact me in Chicago (312-229-5500), DuPage and Kane (630-504-2096) or Lake (847-696-6458) for a free and confidential consultation to discuss your legal options.