Just reading the words double jeopardy brings me back to the early 90s when a movie with the same name was released. It starred Rachel Ward, Bruce Boxleitner, and Sela Ward and was a mystery/thriller. The main character, Jack, had an affair with an old girlfriend, Lisa, and then later witnessed her killing her current boyfriend in self-defense. Lisa is tried for murder, and Jack’s wife is her defense attorney. There is a sinister side to Lisa, though, and even though she is acquitted of the murder, once new evidence against her surfaces, she cannot be retried for the murder because of double jeopardy. So what is double jeopardy, and what are some examples of double jeopardy in law?
There is a clause in the United States Constitution’s Fifth Amendment called the Double Jeopardy Clause. This states that no person shall “be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb,” meaning they can’t be prosecuted for the same crime twice. For example, let’s say a man was tried for breaking and entering an establishment by a jury of his peers and is found not guilty.
Later on, new evidence surfaces that makes the same man appear guilty of the offense. Double jeopardy protects him from being tried again because he cannot be tried twice for the same crime. If he had an accomplice, the accomplice could go to trial, but the original defendant was already acquitted of the crime and cannot be tried again.
Are There Any Loopholes to Double Jeopardy?
The only limit to double jeopardy is if the defendant was not yet previously in legal jeopardy, meaning if he was indicted for a crime, but the case never went to trial where the jury was seated and sworn in. In this instance, if further evidence is discovered later, that same person can be indicted and tried for the crime.
Another example where double jeopardy may not apply is if the court declares a mistrial. Sometimes the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision, and the judge declares a mistrial. In most cases, this does not prevent the government from prosecuting the defendant at a later date if more evidence is found.
What Are Some Examples of Double Jeopardy?
The Case of OJ Simpson
In 1995, former running back for the USC Trojans and NFL player O.J. Simpson was indicted and tried for the murders of his wife, Nicole Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. Both Nicole and Ronald were found stabbed to death, and Simpson was the primary suspect. However, the world was stunned when the jury found him not guilty despite a lot of compelling evidence.
Then, in 2002 a knife was discovered on Simpson’s property, and though it was never proven to be his, it was suspected of being the murder weapon. However, even if it was confirmed to have been the murder weapon and if there was a connection between the knife and Simpson, it would not be possible for him to be retried because jeopardy was attached, and he is protected from being tried for the same crime twice.
To complicate matters even more, in November 2006, a book publisher announced a book that was soon to be released, authored by O.J. Simpson, called If I Did It: Confessions of a Killer. In this book, Simpson outlines how the murders would have played out if he had indeed committed the crimes. He states that it is not a confession but just an example. In this book, many statements appear not to make any sense unless the actual murderer had written it.
With Simpson’s history of being a wife abuser, the mounting evidence that was available during the investigation, and the release of his book outlining a confession, everything points to Simpson as the murderer. But because of double jeopardy, he can never be tried in criminal court again. However, he could be – and was – tried in a civil case where he was sued by the families of the victims for their wrongful death.
Less than four months after the trial began, O.J. Simpson was found to be responsible for the deaths of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and their families were awarded $33.5 million in damages.
The Case of Isaac Turnbaugh
A Randolph Vermont man, Isaac Turnbaugh, was found not guilty in 2004 of first-degree murder. He was prosecuted for the killing of Declan Lyons of Montpelier, Vermont. Turnbaugh allegedly shot Lyons in 2002 while working at the American Flatbread Company.
Turnbaugh had phoned the police and confessed to shooting Lyons in the head with a rifle. But because he had already been acquitted by a jury, he could not be retried on account of double jeopardy.
Turnbaugh had admitted to the killing more than once, yet the state could do nothing about it.
During the trial, Turnbaugh’s defense lawyers argued that he kept confessing to the crime because he was mentally ill, not because he was actually guilty. Yet the jury chose to believe he was lying and acquitted him.
His defense lawyers raised reasonable doubt because they said Turnbaugh had a history of mental illness. He admitted the same thing before the trial, and he also claimed to be responsible for 9/11. Thus, the jury didn’t believe his statements. Yet Vermont State Police still think he was guilty, even after the acquittal.
The Case of Harry Aleman
This is a case where the defendant attempted to use the double jeopardy rule not to be tried for the same crime twice, but there was an exception.
In September 1972, a man, William Logan, was out walking when he was shot by Harry Aleman. Three years later, Aleman also shot another man, Anthony Reitinger, because Reitinger failed to pay a “street tax” on a bookmaking ring Aleman was involved in. In 1976, Aleman was indicted for the Logan murder but was not charged for the Reitinger murder. The case eventually went to trial before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Frank Wilson, who ended up acquitting Aleman of the murder in 1977.
Twenty years later, two witnesses emerged. They had entered the Federal Witness Protection Program and informed officials that Aleman had murdered both men and that he had paid the judge $10,000 to acquit him. One man told about Aleman’s bookmaking operation and said he heard Aleman repeatedly say his trial was “all taken care of.” Aleman even requested a bench trial instead of a jury trial because the case, according to him, was all taken care of.
The other informant was a former corrupt attorney, Robert Cooley. He admitted that, on many occasions, he had bribed judges, prosecutors, clerks, and sheriffs before he entered the Federal Witness Protection Program. Cooley was a good friend of the judge and acted as a go-between by suggesting that the case could be fixed for $10,000. After more collaboration where more money exchanged hands, everything was agreed upon, and Cooley told Aleman it was all arranged.
Despite the new evidence, it was not “legal jeopardy” because Judge Wilson was paid to acquit Aleman. Therefore, there was no double jeopardy hindrance to prosecuting Aleman for Logan’s murder again because there was never any jeopardy at the previous trial.
The Case of Michael Weir
In 1998, Michael Weir attacked and killed a 78-year-old gentleman, Leonard Harris, and Rose Seferian, 83, on two separate occasions. He denied both murders.
In 1999, Weir was found guilty of murdering Mr. Harris, but the Court of Appeal revoked his conviction on a technicality. However, he was retried 20 years later when new DNA evidence had been obtained, and Weir’s palm prints were matched at both murder scenes, linking the two crimes. He was then retried under the double jeopardy law as new evidence unfolded and was found guilty. Weir was the first man to be found guilty of the same murder two times, and where a second murder charge was attached to a double jeopardy case.
Where Weir had initially thought that he got away with murder due to a technicality, he now faced sentencing for both murders.
Why We Need a Double Jeopardy Clause
The framers of the Constitution had reasons for protecting people against double jeopardy.
- They wanted to prevent the government from using its power to convict people who were innocent;
- They felt citizens needed protection against the financial and emotional damage that numerous prosecutions could bring;
- They wanted to make sure the government didn’t just ignore a jury’s decision just because it wasn’t in agreement with that decision; and
- They wanted to keep the government from bringing extreme harsh charges against defendants.
Basically, double jeopardy prevents the government from using its greater resources to harass a person by trying them over and over for the same offense. This is especially true when a person has been found not guilty by a jury.
- What Is Criminal Law? An In-Depth Look
- What is Criminology All About?
- Criminology vs. Criminal Psychology – What’s the Difference?
- 20 Best Crime Drama TV Shows
Alexandra Christensen is a freelance writer and editor. When she is not working on an assignment, she can be found hanging around with other writers on Medium.com/@alexandra_creates where she writes mostly about raising foster and adopted kids and those with invisible disabilities.