HomeCrimeSCOTUS considers McElrath double jeopardy case

SCOTUS considers McElrath double jeopardy case

Left, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Neil Gorsuch; Right: Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas (Photograph by Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States); Center: Damian McElrath (Photograph, Cobb County Sheriff’s Office).

The U.S. Supreme Court continued its term Tuesday with oral arguments in a case involving double jeopardy, mental illness, murder, and the state of Georgia.

In the case of McElrath v. Georgia, the justices will decide whether Georgia’s prohibition against successive prosecutions means that prosecutors can retry a mentally ill man who was found both guilty and not guilty of the same alleged murder.

The difference comes down to what mental state is required for each murder charge filed in the case.

Damian McElrath, then 18, stabbed his adoptive mother, Diane McElrath, to death in 2012.

After trial, a jury found McElrath not guilty of “malice murder” by reason of insanity. In Georgia, malice murder is the most serious murder charge, roughly parallel to a first-degree murder charge in many other states. It requires that the offender intentionally killed a victim.

The same jury, however, also returned a simultaneous verdict at the end of the trial that McElrath was guilty but mentally ill on charges of felony murder and aggravated assault. The felony murder rule allows prosecutors to charge defendants with murder even when a defendant did not directly cause a victim’s death. In Georgia, as in most states, felony murder is a less serious charge than malice (or first-degree) murder.

Either verdict might make sense on its own, as different mental states are required for the two crimes. However, as lawyers for McElrath noted before the Supreme Court on Tuesday, it is not not possible for a person to be both legally sane and legally insane at the same time during the commission of the same act.

Likely, the inconsistent outcomes were the result of the jury’s wanting to return a verdict for an offense less serious than malice murder.

However, because the verdicts conflicted with one another, the trial court pronounced them “repugnant” under Georgia’s statute and vacated both verdicts, and allowed a second trial. It is that second trial against which McElrath, through his attorneys, now fights.

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