Can someone explain how the double jeopardy laws work?

Today on NPR they mentioned the killing of Emmett Till, a black kid from Chicago who went to Money, Mississippi to visit some relatives. (This was 1955). While there he made the mistake of whistling at a white woman, which resulted in her husband torturing and killing young Mr. Till. The husband and his brother were charged with murder, but an all-white jury acquitted the men after only a few minutes of deliberation. Both men had claimed to be innocent.

A year or two later both admitted to a reporter for Look magazine that they had killed the kid. Both men lived more or less normal lives after that.

So my question is why were these two re-tried? As I understand it, the double jeopardy laws prohibits the state from re-prosecuting someone based on the same evidence that was presented during the first trial. If these two guys confessed, seems like that would be a pretty big piece of new evidence.

Why not try to prosecute them again? One if them lived until the mid-90’s, seems that even if the failure to re-try these guys can be chalked up to Mississippi in the 1950’s, at some point someone would open a case again based on their confession.

What am I missing?

Your mistake is here. A jury acquittal prevents retrial on just about all grounds. OJ Simpson could take out a full page advertisement tomorrow saying that he killed Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman and there’s nothing the state of California could do about it.

In other words, the appearance of new evidence will not allow a new trial.

The only times (IIUC) a new trial could follow a jury acquittal is if it is found that the trial was fixed (i.e. the defendant bribed the jury). In such a case, the defendant was never actually in jeopardy in the first place and, hence, double jeopardy does not apply.

Zev Steinhardt

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Note the difference? It’s the crime; not the evidence.

All, see

It’s not based on similarity of evidence, it’s based on similarity of charges and jurisdiction.

Same jurisdiction (i.e., Federal and state are distinct) and same or interrelated set of criminal acts. You can’t sequentially try Jones for shooting Smith with an illegally obtained pistol for murder, manslaughter, assault with intent to kill, assault with a deadly weapon, and (probably) possession of an illegal firearm. You can try him for the embezzlement he supposedly shot Smith to avoid him spilling the beans about. And if he crossed a state line for the specific purpose of committing the crime, the Federal courts could try him for that.

The DJ Clause of the 5th Amendment was not made applicable to the states until 1969 so that state’s DJ provision applied in 1955, and evidentially it did not forbid such.

Might the state of Illinois be able to claim jurisdiction, based on the victim being a resident of that state? And if they could claim jurisdiction, they’d still be able to re-try the murderers, right?

The federal constitution does not however bar a subsequent charge of Conspiracy to commit murder. So if it came to light as new evidence OJ conspired to commit murder, even though he was not the actor, he can be tried for that, unless CA’s DJ provision forbids it.

One way 2 states could assume “criminal law jurisdiction” is say the crime “commenced” in one state and was “completed” in another. Compare the SC case Heath v. Alabama. The person was tried in 2 states for the murder of the same person. The SC affirmed that right.

Anyone remember the Rodney King trial? Where the police were acquitted of brutality in the beating, and that sparked riots in the LA area?

The policemen were later re-tried - somehow the government tried them on civil rights violations instead of regular police brutality. As incomprehensible as their initial acquittal was, I don’t understand how the government could get away with essentially saying “whoops, that was a mess, better get 'em in jail SOMEHOW to satisfy the mob”.

You said “can NOT try him sequentially” - if I get your meaning, you’re saying that they can’t try him for murder, and if that fails they can’t nail him on the firearm possession charge in a later trial? I can get that they couldn’t have him acquitted on murder, then slap him on manslaughter in a separate trial since murder and manslaughter are pretty much the same thing.

I believe the first charge was state, and the second federal, which means double jeopardy wouldn’t apply.

They were acquitted on state charges. They were subsequently tried by the federal government for violating the civil rights of Rodney King while acting in their capacity as law enforcement officers, which is a federal crime.

Ok, so how does a re-trial/new trial happen? My knowledge of the law comes from Grisham novels and thats about it, but I’ve seen references to people who were convicted and then “seek a new trial”. Wouldn’t that be the same thing as double jeopardy?

It’s only double jeopardy if the state tries to seek a new trial after you’ve been acquitted. If you’re already convicted, then a new trial doesn’t put you in any more jeopardy.

Almost all of the time, a convicted person who wants to fight a conviction will do so by appealing to higher courts, relying on legal arguments about why the original trial was flawed in some way. In rare circumstances, such as severe prosecutorial misconduct, jury tampering, judge-bribing, etc., then a new trial may be granted.

No, that’s backwards. If you’re convicted you can continue to appeal for a new trial (either citing new exculpatory evidence, or errors by the judge, or any number of things). It’s only if you are acquitted that you can’t be tried again in the same jurisdiction on the same charges.

The moral of the story is - if the prosecution wants to find some grounds for a new trial on different charges, they can. There are so many laws, there must be something you violated, and the feds and the state can act pretty much independent of each other.

I’m not sure in what circumstances the “speedy trial” rule applies if at all in the states. Here in Canada, one constitutional right is to be charged within a reasonable time. The state cannot collect evidence for a crime and hold it over your head for the next two decades, when we need to teach you a lesson we’ll charge you for that old crime you committed way back in your college days. Of course, if new evidence comes to light (we found the body 20 years later) then that may mean they have enough evidence now to lay charges, but they did not before.

The double jeopardy rule just means that the state better be sure it has all the evidence when it does charge you. They don’t get to try again when new evidence appears. They don’t get to keep trying over and over again until they find the right jury.

Of course, people provide false confessions all the time. If a white guy from the south is accused of murdering a black man and acquitted, he might find it a plus in those days in his “social circle” to boast that he did it. More likely, he knew he could not be re-tried so he told the truth.

Can you elaborate? As far as I can tell, it looks like s. 22 of the Mississippi Constitution would have barred it:

It doesn’t look like it’s been amended since 1955?

  1. They were not retried in state court because jeopardy attached to their first trial, and served as a subsequent bar to reprosecution, lawbuff’s speculation notwithstanding.

  2. They were not retried in a federal context because of the lack of federal ammunition: Till was killed in 1955, and the passage of the civil rights laws that were used to great effect against other offenders was still about ten years away. Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, his self-confessed killers, suffered financial ruin after their inculpatory interview was published by Look magazine, but they couldn’t be tried for a 1955 crime under a law passed in 1964. This is prohibited by the Ex Post Facto Clause.

  3. For a general discussion of double jeopardy in the context of an admission to a crime following acquittal, see my Staff Report, “What happens if you confess to a crime after being found not guilty?”

Absolutely incorrect. See Burton v. State, 79 So. 2d 242, (Miss. 1955):

From the OP’s words it appeared they were tried again in state court, he said nothing about a federal court trial.