An Arkansas man charged with murder will be retried on the most serious offenses after the U.S. Supreme Court concluded Thursday a hung jury in his original criminal prosecution did not prevent the state from getting a second chance at a conviction.
The 6-3 majority rejected the appeal of Alex Blueford, accused of killing his girlfriend's infant son.
"The jury in this case did not convict Blueford of any offense, but it did not acquit him of any either," said Chief Justice John Roberts. "When the jury was unable to reach a verdict, the trial court properly declared a mistrial and discharged the jury. As a consequence, the Double Jeopardy Clause does not stand in the way of a second trial on the same offenses."
Blueford was prosecuted for capital murder, but the death penalty was waived if he were to be convicted. But the trial judge said the Pulaski County jury could also consider three less serious crimes.
During deliberations, the judge asked for a progress report, and the panel's forewoman in open court announced the jurors had rejected the capital and first-degree murder charges, but could not agree on manslaughter.
They eventually deadlocked, and because of that, the 12 members did not even consider a separate, negligent homicide charge.
The judge then declared a mistrial, but refused to give Blueford a partial victory on the capital and first-degree murder charges. Prosecutors then decided to retry the 29-year-old man on all the charges. The second trial was postponed until the high court could decide whether the defendant's constitutional rights were being violated.
The Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment prevents trying a person again for a crime after a verdict of not guilty. But state courts around the country are at odds on whether split verdicts on some counts allow retrial on all counts.
Roberts, writing for the majority, said trial courts could.
"We have never required a trial court, before declaring a mistrial because of a hung jury, to consider any particular means of breaking the impasse -- let alone to consider giving the jury new options for a verdict," he said. Justice Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, and Samuel Alito supported the decision.
Blueford had argued the jury should have been allowed to "give effect" to the jury's internal votes of not guilty on capital and first-degree murder.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed.
"At its core, the Double Jeopardy Clause reflects the wisdom of the founding generation ... that one acquittal or conviction should satisfy the law," she wrote in a dissenting opinion.
She added, "This case demonstrates that the threat to individual freedom from reprosecutions that favor states and unfairly rescue them from weak cases has not waned with time. Only this court's vigilance has." Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan joined the dissent.
The Little Rock defendant was prosecuted in the November 2007 death of 20-month-old Matthew McFadden Jr. The state said the boy's brain injuries were comparable to someone being dropped off a building. Blueford told police it was an accident, that he "reflexively elbowed" the child into a nearby chair.
The case is Blueford v. Arkansas (10-1320).