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On February 21, 2024, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in McElrath v. Georgia. In that opinion, the Court held that Georgia had violated McElrath’s Fifth Amendment right against double jeopardy by trying him for malice murder a second time after he was previously acquitted of the charge.

For years, McElrath suffered from various mental health issues. In 2012, McElrath was hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia. After two weeks in the hospital, McElrath was released when his delusions seemed to have stopped. A week later, he stabbed his mother to death and explained that he had done so because she was poisoning him.

McElrath was tried for three crimes under Georgia law: malice murder, felony murder, and aggravated assault. The jury found that McElrath was not guilty by reason of insanity on the malice murder charge; however, the jury found that McElrath was guilty but mentally ill on the felony murder and aggravated assault charges. This meant that McElrath could be ordered to undergo temporary mental health treatment.

On appeal, McElrath argued, and the Georgia Supreme Court agreed, that the verdicts were repugnant. This essentially means that the verdicts were conflicting to an extent that they were illogical and could not stand. As a result, the Georgia Supreme Court vacated all three convictions.

On remand, the State sought to prosecute McElrath for malice murder a second time despite his previous acquittal. On appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court rejected McElrath’s claim that the second prosecution for malice murder violated the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause because the acquittal had been vacated as repugnant to the guilty verdicts. The Georgia Supreme Court compared the situation to that where a mistrial was declared based on a hung jury.

The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari and reversed McElrath’s conviction for malice murder. When considering whether the Double Jeopardy Clause bars a second prosecution, the federal definition of an acquittal controls—not the State definition. Under federal law, determining whether an acquittal occurred required “look[ing] to whether the ruling’s substance relates to the ultimate question of guilt or innocence.” And “[o]nce rendered, a jury’s verdict of acquittal is inviolate.”

Critically, the Court rejected Georgia’s claim that the other inconsistent verdicts weakened the malice murder acquittal. “An acquittal is an acquittal, even when a jury returns inconsistent verdicts.” “As far as the Fifth Amendment is concerned, in-consistency in a verdict is not a sufficient reason for setting it aside.”

This type of scenario rarely comes up. Nevertheless, this decision makes clear that when it does arise, the jury’s verdict controls.