In this episode of our podcast, "Good Questions for Bad Days", we look into Ashley Judd, Tommy Lee Jones and the legal concept "Double Jeopardy". Is this a legitimate concept? And, if so, how does it apply in the film?
Though often sensationalized in film and TV the procedural defense, double jeopardy, is much more complex than is portrayed on screen. Double jeopardy is a legal structure that prevents an accused party from being tried for the same crime more than once in order to protect an accused person from a series of neverending trials after being charged. It is essentially a system that keeps the prosecution in check, ensuring no personal vendetta, or other related or unrelated cause incites a repetition of the same trial.
On the surface, this law may sound like a free pass for someone who commits a crime, is found guilty or not guilty, and wants to commit another crime of the same nature. For example, if an individual steals a car, is found not guilty for lack of evidence, and then proceeds to steal another car, shouldn’t he be protected under the Double Jeopardy Clause? The answer is a resounding, no.
Under state and federal laws, a crime committed, even of a similar nature is still considered a separate crime. So, if a person steals another car even after being tried for stealing a car previously, he or she is still completely liable to be charged for stealing a car the second time.
The answer, in this case, is both yes and no. If an individual is tried federally, they may not be tried federally again for the same crime, however, if a person is tried at the state level, the federal government may conduct a separate trial for the same crime, and this is not considered double jeopardy. However, if a person is found guilty at the state level, there would be little reason to try them at the federal level. Constitutionally, a person cannot be prosecuted twice for the same crime. That means that if a person is serving a prison sentence after being found guilty at the state level, he or she cannot go to prison for the same offense if tried federally, too.
With that being said, if a person is found not guilty at the state level and has broken a federal law, it is legal to try them for the same crime at the federal level. Similarly, if a person is found guilty of a crime committed under the state’s jurisdiction, the federal government could bring a separate charge from the same set of circumstances. In this case, the charge would not fall under the Double Jeopardy Clause because it would be a different charge resulting from the same crime.
In 1975, a 17-year-old was convicted of a robbery and tried as a juvenile defendant in a case called Breed vs. Jones. Later Jones was tried for the robbery offense as an adult at the bequest of the juvenile court. The accused filed a habeas corpus, asserting that trying him separately as an adult violated the Double Jeopardy Clause in the 5th amendment. Through this landmark case, Jones’ filing was upheld and it was granted that another trial did indeed violate his rights through Double Jeopardy.
Due to this case, the prosecution cannot try a defendant both as a juvenile and an adult once the minor comes of age, thus demonstrating that though tried differently, Double Jeopardy still applies to the same individual regardless of age.
One of the most complex problems facing the Double Jeopardy Clause during the 21st century is that new technology is providing us with answers and evidence in cases that have already been tried with those charges acquitted. If someone is murdered, and the person charged with the murder is found not guilty, the family members might privately hire someone to provide answers with new methods of DNA testing not readily available at the time of the trial. Though producing evidence that would otherwise prove the previously charged is indeed guilty, wouldn’t that be reasonable grounds for a retrial?
Though that would seem likely, the answer is no. Due to the Double Jeopardy Clause, the previously charged and acquitted defendant, though potentially guilty due to DNA evidence, is protected from a retrial and able to walk freely without retribution for that particular crime.
On the other hand, if a person is found guilty during a trial and is in the process of completing a prison sentence, new evidence may result in a retrial. In order to have a retrial, the evidence must be exemplary and compelling in demonstrating the charged party’s innocence, otherwise, the retrial appeal may be rejected. This is one of the only exceptions to the Double Jeopardy Clause.
So what does the actual law state about this complex legal procedure? Basically, the bylaw of the 5th amendment states that:
These official bylaws have little exception within the court of law, but depending on your state could be interpreted differently. A lawyer within your state will be familiar with the types of nuances pertaining to this law. So, if you’re curious or believe you have a case that might benefit from Double Jeopardy, make sure to fully understand the particular interpretations of this law in your state of residence.
As we have discussed, Double Jeopardy is nearly always misappropriated in the movies, so we suggest that, rather than relying on movies for your legal education, do your research. If you have more questions about Double Jeopardy, the best thing you can do is contact a lawyer. Contacting a lawyer can help clarify any questions you might have regarding this complex clause or any other legal issues and confusion you may have, especially, if you have a case that needs representation.
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