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Double Jeopardy Doesn't Bar Politician's Retrial, Supreme Court Rules

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on December 01, 2016 11:59 AM

In its first merits opinion of the term, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the Double Jeopardy Clause does not prevent the retrial of a Puerto Rican lawmaker and a businessman who were convicted of bribery. Those convictions were later overturned because of faulty jury instructions. And they were paired with inconsistent acquittals, on two uncontested counts.

At issue before the Court was whether those inconsistent verdicts, following the vacatur of the bribery convictions, prevented the government from trying the men once again. It did not, the Supreme Court ruled, since inconsistent verdicts were not to be afforded preclusive effect.

The Strange Case of Juan Bravo-Fernandez and Hector Martinez-Maldonado

Juan Bravo-Fernandez, a businessman, and Hector Martinez-Maldonado, then a senator for Puerto Rico, were accused of bribery after Bravo-Fernandez took the senator on an all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas, following Martinez-Maldonado's support for legislation favorable to the businessman.

The jury convicted both Bravo-Fernandez and Martinez-Maldonado of bribery under federal anti-corruption laws. But the jury also acquitted them of conspiracy and traveling interstate to violate the law. The elements needed to prove agreement and travel, however, were undisputed at trial and would necessarily be met here if the two had committed the underlying bribery.

Finding the pair guilty of conspiracy but not these two related violations made the verdict "irreconcilably inconsistent."

Bravo-Fernandez's and Martinez-Maldonado's convictions for bribery were subsequently overturned, due to an error in the jury instructions. The pair then argued that they could not be retried for bribery, since the jury had determined that they were not guilty of violating the law when it acquitted them on agreement and travel.

Issue Preclusion and Inconsistent Verdicts

The men's claims rested on the issue-preclusion component of the Double Jeopardy Clause. Under the issue preclusion doctrine, according to the Court's 1970 Ashe v. Swenson decision, "when an issue of ultimate fact has once been determined by a valid and final judgment, that issue cannot again be litigated between the same parties in any future lawsuit."

Bravo-Fernandez's and Martinez-Maldonado's case add extra wrinkles to the analysis though.

When a jury returns inconsistent verdicts, convicting on one count and acquitting on another, both stand. The government cannot challenge the acquittal. But, because those verdicts are inconsistent, the acquittal holds no preclusive effect. That is because the issue preclusion rule is "predicated on the assumption that the jury acted rationally." When a jury returns irreconcilable, and thus irrational, verdicts, its determination is not entitled to that presumption.

Here, however, the conviction was vacated. That, the petitioners argued, rendered it a "legal nullity," excluding it from the preclusion analysis. If excluded, then the jury's verdicts were not inconsistent. If not inconsistent, then the acquittals have preclusive effect.

Can't Prove the Meaning of a Verdict "Shrouded in Mystery"

Not quite, the Supreme Court ruled. "One cannot know from the jury's report why it returned no verdict," the Court explained. But, in the face of that uncertainty, the "actual inconsistency in a jury's verdict is a reality; vacatur of a conviction for unrelated legal error does not reconcile the jury's inconsistent returns," Justice Ginsburg wrote for a unanimous Court.

The Court's reasoning rested partly on the fact that petitioners bore the burden of "demonstrating that the jury necessarily resolved in their favor" the questions at issue. But that burden cannot be met when there are inconsistent, unexplained verdicts. "As we have explained," the Court wrote, "a defendant cannot meet that burden when the trial yielded incompatible jury verdicts on the issue the defendant seeks to insulate from relitigation."

Bravo-Fernandez and Martinez-Maldonado have already won the "benefit of their appellate victory," the Court explained -- a new trial upon which the government will not be allowed to rely on the bribery theory that got their convictions vacated. But that's all, the Court concluded, as "issue preclusion is not a doctrine they can commandeer when inconsistent verdicts shroud in mystery what the jury necessarily decided."

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