Supreme Court Blocks Retrial of Georgia Man Accused of Murder


The Supreme Court today rejected Georgia’s attempt to retry Damian McElrath for murder after he was found “not guilty by reason of insanity” on one count and “guilty but mentally ill” on two other counts. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that, even if inconsistent, “an acquittal is an acquittal” for purposes of the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause.

The petitioner, Damian McElrath, had struggled with serious mental illness from a young age, the Court explains in its decision written by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. His mental health began to deteriorate substantially in his teen years, manifesting in delusions that included a belief that his mother was poisoning his food and drink with ammonia and pesticides. His delusions intensified and, at 18, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalized for two weeks.

One week after he was discharged from the hospital, he fatally stabbed his mother and immediately told police that he had killed her because she was poisoning him.

Mr. McElrath was charged with malice murder, felony murder, and aggravated assault and asserted an insanity defense.

Under Georgia law, a criminal defendant may be found “not guilty by reason of insanity” if, at the time of the crime, he “did not have mental capacity to distinguish between right and wrong” or he committed the crime “because of a delusional compulsion as to such act which overmastered his will to resist committing the crime.”

The jury found Mr. McElrath “not guilty by reason of insanity” on the malice-murder charge and “guilty but mentally ill” on the felony-murder and aggravated-assault charges. The trial court sentenced him to life imprisonment on the felony-murder conviction.

Mr. McElrath appealed, arguing that the felony-murder conviction should be vacated because it contradicts the jury’s “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict for malice murder. The Georgia Supreme Court agreed, holding that the jury’s verdicts “required affirmative findings of different mental states that could not exist at the same time during the commission of those crimes.” But rather than vacate only the felony-murder conviction, the court vacated both verdicts and remanded the case for a second trial.

Mr. McElrath argued that the Double Jeopardy Clause barred Georgia from retrying him for malice murder after the jury found him not guilty on that charge. But the Georgia Supreme Court held that, while the “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict was an acquittal, it was nullified by the jury’s inconsistent verdict of “guilty but mentally ill” on the other charge and therefore did not trigger Double Jeopardy protection.

The Double Jeopardy Clause provides that “[n]o person shall . . . be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” As Justice Jackson wrote, the Court has long held that a jury’s verdict of acquittal is final—it cannot be reviewed for any reason—and it bars a second trial for the same offense.

The Court’s precedent also makes clear that a “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict counts as an acquittal for double jeopardy purposes, the same as any other form of acquittal.

Georgia conceded that the “not guilty” verdict taken on its own would be a valid acquittal, but it argued that the other inconsistent verdicts nullified all the verdicts in the case. No verdict means there was no acquittal, Georgia argued.

The Court rejected that reasoning. “That McElrath’s ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ verdict
was accompanied by other verdicts that appeared to rest on inconsistent findings is of no moment,” the Court held.

An acquittal is an acquittal, even “when a jury returns inconsistent verdicts, convicting on one count and acquitting on another count, where both counts turn on the very same issue of ultimate fact.”

Georgia’s contention that it can review a verdict of acquittal when it is accompanied by inconsistent verdicts violates “[p]erhaps the most fundamental rule in the history of double jeopardy jurisprudence”—that “the Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits second-guessing the reason for a jury’s acquittal.”

“This bright-line rule exists,” the Court emphasized, “to preserve the jury’s ‘overriding responsibility . . . to stand between the accused and a potentially arbitrary or abusive Government that is in command of the criminal sanction.’”

“We simply cannot know why the jury in McElrath’s case acted as it did, and the Double Jeopardy Clause forbids us to guess,” the Court concluded. “To conclude otherwise would impermissibly authorize judges to usurp the jury right.”

Because the jury’s “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict was an acquittal on the malice-murder charge, the Court held that the Double Jeopardy Clause bars retrial of Mr. McElrath on that charge.