Some prosecutors are a little like complaining children, they are never satisfied unless they get their way, and they will continue to whine for a long time until they do. This past Friday, in an appeal involving a white collar federal criminal prosecution the Supreme Court took a case to answer whether federal prosecutors can get a second bite at the apple when at the first trial the defendant was acquitted of the major counts, the jury hung on other counts, and in finding the defendant not guilty the jury must have resolved the facts in the defendant’s favor. (Defendant’s Petition here)
The defendant was involved in the Enron mess. He was charged with conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, securities violations, insider trading and for laundering the money related to the insider trading. The jury found him not guilty of everything except the insider trading and money laundering, and on these charges, they were unable to reach a verdict. The prosecutors tried to crank up a new set of charges based on the areas where the jury did not reach a verdict. The defendant pointed to the Double Jeopardy protection which includes what we call “collateral estoppel”. This is the issue the Supreme Court will address in the case.
The collateral estoppel question is both a technical legal issue, along with being a common-sense concept that the average man or woman on the street can figure out (think “Joe the Plumber” gets prosecuted a second time when the first jury found him innocent on basically everything charged). Here’s the technical description. Under the rule of collateral estoppel, when a first jury necessarily decides a certain fact against a party, that same party is prevented (or what as we lawyers say, is “estopped”) from again trying to litigate that same fact at a later trial. However, what happens when a first jury rules for the defendant, but the jury for some reason is unable to reach a verdict on other charges that have the same basic factual underpinnings? Some of the federal courts say that the hung counts prevent the courts from being certain that the facts underlying the acquitted counts were necessarily found in the defendant’s favor. Other federal courts rule in the complete opposite direction: saying that it makes no sense to even consider the charges where the jury was unable to reach a verdict when deciding whether certain facts were necessarily found in the defendant’s favor. These inconsistent rulings were likely the major reason the Supreme Court agreed to take the case involving the Enron defendant.
As I said above, the question in this case is both highly technical, yet also something that non-lawyers can grasp. Most folks would understand that when you go through a trial and the jury finds you not guilty on basically everything, prosecutors should not get a second chance. Let’s hope that the Supreme Court remembers to apply the Constitution that most of us live under, and not the version wanted by some whining prosecutors who will do anything to get their way.