McElrath v. Georgia, 601 U. S. ____ (Feb. 21, 2024)

In this case concerning the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause, Damian McElrath petitioned for relief after the Supreme Court of Georgia held its state’s repugnancy doctrine allowed the retrial of McElrath for malice murder after the jury returned a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, but found McElrath guilty of related charges. In an opinion authored by Justice Jackson, the Court unanimously rejected Georgia’s interpretation and held that McElrath could not be tried for malice murder a second time because the jury’s verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity represented an acquittal. 

In 2012, McElrath stabbed his adopted mother to death, suspecting that she was poisoning his food. McElrath had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at a young age, and a few weeks before the killing he began exhibiting delusions, resulting in his commitment to a mental health facility where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. One week after his discharge from the mental health facility, McElrath killed his mother, then called 911 to report the killing, informing law enforcement that he killed her because she was poisoning his food. 

Georgia brought three charges against McElrath: malice murder (effectively first-degree murder), felony murder, and aggravated assault. At trial, McElrath asserted an insanity defense. Georgia law allowed for two special verdicts in this situation, “not guilty by reason of insanity” and “guilty but mentally ill.” The jury in this case returned a split verdict, finding McElrath not guilty by reason of insanity for the malice murder charge, and guilty but mentally ill for the felony murder and aggravated assault charges (these charges merged as the assault was the predicate felony). The trial court sentenced McElrath to life imprisonment and he appealed, arguing that the two verdicts were “repugnant” (meaning the jury’s findings “are not legally and logically possible of existing simultaneously”) under Georgia law and, thus, the felony murder/aggravated assault verdict should be vacated. Slip op. at 4. 

The Supreme Court of Georgia agreed that the verdicts were repugnant, but contrary to McElrath’s request, the court vacated both the malice murder and felony murder/aggravated assault verdicts, remanding for a new trial. McElrath appealed a second time, arguing the Double Jeopardy Clause prevented retrying him for malice murder when he was acquitted by the jury. The Georgia Court disagreed, holding that because the two verdicts were repugnant, neither held value, and the not guilty by reason of insanity verdict did not operate as a normal acquittal. This holding led to McElrath’s petition and the current opinion. 

Taking up the Double Jeopardy Clause argument, Justice Jackson first noted the long line of decisions establishing that “[o]nce rendered, a jury’s verdict of acquittal is inviolate.” Id. at 6. Importantly, the specific reasoning of the jury is not relevant, as “[w]hatever the basis, the Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits second-guessing the reason for a jury’s acquittal.” Id. Here, Georgia argued that the repugnancy of the verdicts meant they were both null, changing the normal calculus for an acquittal. The Court rejected this argument, explaining that “whether an acquittal has occurred for purposes of the Double Jeopardy Clause is a question of federal, not state, law[,]” and state law cannot change the fundamental considerations as to what constitutes an acquittal. Id. at 8. Under the Court’s standard, “an acquittal has occurred if the factfinder ‘acted on its view that the prosecution had failed to prove its case.’” Id. (quoting Evans v. Michigan, 568 U. S. 313, 322 (2013)). 

Justice Jackson emphasized that even though the “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict “was accompanied by other verdicts that appeared to rest on inconsistent findings[,]” this did not impact the Court’s conclusion, as “the Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits second guessing an acquittal for any reason.” Id. at 9. Georgia argued that due to the special nature of the verdicts regarding McElrath’s mental state, the normal rules of scrutinizing an acquittal did not apply. Justice Jackson explained that this did not matter, as precedent prohibited speculating as to a jury’s motivations or reasoning even when there are “specific jury findings that provide a factual basis for such speculation,” concluding “[w]e simply cannot know why the jury in McElrath’s case acted as it did, and the Double Jeopardy Clause forbids us to guess.” Id. at 12. 

Justice Alito joined the unanimous opinion but also wrote a one-page concurrence to clarify that “the situation here is different from one in which a trial judge refuses to accept inconsistent verdicts and thus sends the jury back to deliberate further.” Id. (Alito, J., concurring). This echoed Justice Jackson’s clarification in footnote 4 of the main opinion.