Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Criminal Law - Double Jeopardy - First Circuit Upholds Reprosecution of Defendant Acquitted in "Sham" Trial

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Criminal Law - Double Jeopardy - First Circuit Upholds Reprosecution of Defendant Acquitted in "Sham" Trial

Article excerpt

CRIMINAL LAW--DOUBLE JEOPARDY--FIRST CIRCUIT UPHOLDS REPROSECUTION OF DEFENDANT ACQUITTED IN "SHAM" TRIAL.--Gonzalez v. Justices of the Municipal Court of Boston, 382 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2004), vacated mem., 125 S. Ct. 1640 (2005).

The thin line that sometimes divides acquittals from dismissals for double jeopardy purposes separates two trial outcomes with starkly differing consequences: absolute freedom and reprosecution with the possibility of incarceration. In patrolling the acquittal/dismissal divide, the Supreme Court has repeatedly eschewed a formalistic approach, opting instead for a functional inquiry that disregards labels and divides those cases resolved on the merits--"true acquittals"--from those resolved on grounds unrelated to guilt or innocence. (1)

Recently, in Gonzalez v. Justices of the Municipal Court of Boston, (2) the First Circuit followed the Supreme Court's cues and upheld a state supreme court decision that sent an acquitted defendant back to trial because his acquittal had been, in the state court's view, a "sham." (3) The First Circuit accused the trial judge of incanting the "magic word[]" "acquittal" to mask what was really a dismissal. (4) In so holding, however, the First Circuit robbed Peter to pay Paul--to fulfill its duties to the functional inquiry doctrine, it hollowed out an even more deeply rooted double jeopardy value: the finality of acquittals. (5) To avoid undermining this value, courts should not second-guess trial resolutions labeled "acquittal"; rather, they should employ a rule under which resolutions labeled "acquittal" absolutely bar review.

On June 8, 2000, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts tried Jorge Gonzalez in the Boston Municipal Court for various state drug law violations. (6) After both sides reported ready for trial, the judge granted Gonazalez's motion in limine to exclude most of the relevant evidence on the ground that the prosecution had failed to disclose the evidence in a timely manner. (7) Befuddled, the prosecution declared itself "no longer ready for trial," (8) but the judge, unrelenting, pushed on. (9) After Gonzalez opted for a bench trial, the judge summoned the prosecution's first witness, but the prosecution again resisted, explaining that Gonzalez's successful evidentiary motion had devastated its case. (10) Seeing an escape, Gonzalez moved for a judgment of acquittal; the prosecution objected and suggested dismissal for noncompliant discovery instead. (11) But the judge declined to indulge the prosecution and "took the bull by the horns," advising Gonzalez to call a witness so that jeopardy would attach. (12) Taking this tip, Gonzalez's attorney called Gonzalez's daughter, asked her two trivial questions, (13) and then renewed his motion for a judgment of acquittal. The court granted the motion over the prosecution's "vociferous objection." (14)

The Commonwealth petitioned the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) for relief pursuant to the SJC's "general superintendence" over inferior state courts. (15) The SJC accepted the Commonwealth's application and vacated both the exclusion order and the judgment. (16) The court found that the exclusion order was erroneous, that the error was exacerbated by the trial judge's hastiness, and that jeopardy had not attached. (17) In the SJC's view, the trial, and therefore the acquittal, had been a "sham." (18)

After unsuccessfully petitioning the United States Supreme Court for certiorari, (19) Gonzalez filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. (20) The district court rejected Gonzalez's petition, finding "no reason to quarrel" with the SJC. (21) The trial court's resolution, explained the district court, was "more akin" to a dismissal based on trial error than to an acquittal based on insufficiency of evidence. (22)

The First Circuit found the question "close," but nevertheless unanimously affirmed. …

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