The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today rejected two defendants’ pleas for a new trial in connection to their murder convictions in 1975. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Brown.
The defendants participated in a home invasion in 1973 that resulted in the shooting death of the victim. At their first trial, occurring approximately three months after the murder, the defendants were convicted of first-degree murder and armed entry with the intent to commit a felony. However, there was confusion during the reading of the verdict when the jury foreman initially announced that the defendants were guilty of armed entry but not guilty of murder. Four minutes later, the jurors returned to the courtroom and told the judge they had intended to convict the defendants of murder as well as armed entry. The foreman said, “[w]e had written down ‘not guilty’ of the intent of entering to murder. But we did find him guilty of murder in the first degree on the charge of a felonious murder.” The defendants had been tried on two first-degree murder theories – premeditation and felony murder. The defendants appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court reversed on unrelated grounds (improper jury instruction by the trial judge).
The Commonwealth prosecuted the defendants again, but pursued only the murder charge (and did not go forward on the armed entry indictments). The jury in the second trial convicted the defendants again of first-degree murder, but did not specify the theory of culpability. The defendants filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that the first jury had actually acquitted them of first-degree murder on a theory of premeditation, and therefore the Commonwealth was prohibited from retrying them on that theory. Because the jury in the second trial did not specify a theory of conviction, the defendants contended they are entitled to a new trial where the Commonwealth must prove their guilt under a theory of felony murder. A superior court judge denied the defendants’ motion for a new trial.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that there had been no violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause. The Clause, rooted in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, prohibits three things – a second prosecution for the same crime after an acquittal; a second prosecution for the same crime after a conviction; and multiple punishments for the same conviction. The defendants in this case argued that they were effectively acquitted of premeditated murder in the first trial, and they therefore cannot be retried on that theory.
The Court ruled that the jury had not unequivocally rejected the defendants’ guilt on the theory of deliberate premeditation, and therefore a second conviction, even if it was based on a deliberate premeditation theory, did not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause. The Court said it would not accept the defendants’ invitation to interpret the meaning of the jury foreman’s statements, which were not “sufficiently clear” to show that the jurors actually resolved the factual elements of deliberate premeditation. The Court wrote that the interests of justice are not served by entry of an acquittal by accident or supposition, and accordingly it would not grant a new trial to the defendants.
This case illustrates the importance of the trial attorney making a clear record of the proceedings for future appellate review. Because the jury foreman’s words were ambiguous, the defendants are out of luck.