Supreme Court Bars Georgia From Retrying Mentally Ill Man for Murder

The Constitution’s ban on double jeopardy also applies to inconsistent jury verdicts, the court holds.
Supreme Court Bars Georgia From Retrying Mentally Ill Man for Murder
Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman on the nation's highest court, speaks at the 60th Commemoration of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15, 2023. (Butch Dill - Pool/Getty Images)
Matthew Vadum

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled this week that Georgia is not allowed to try a mentally ill man for a second time despite conflicting jury verdicts.

The case goes back to 2012 when Damian McElrath, then 18, killed his mother, a struggling single parent who had adopted him when he was two years old, the court noted.

When he was young, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He reacted poorly to psychiatric treatment and sometimes refused to take his prescribed medication. He had difficulty in school, including low grades, suspensions, and trouble with law enforcement. All of this led to quarrels between Mr. McElrath and his mother.

Some years before his mother’s unnatural death, Mr. McElrath’s mental condition deteriorated. He began to believe that his mother was poisoning his food and drink with ammonia and pesticides. He also suffered from other delusions, believing he was an FBI agent who regularly traveled to Russia and had killed multiple people.

In the weeks before the murder, Mr. McElrath was confined in a mental health facility and diagnosed with schizophrenia. After two weeks, he was discharged because the clinical staff no longer thought he was a threat to himself or others, and he was no longer having delusions.

After he stabbed his mother to death, the state charged him with three crimes: malice murder, felony murder, and aggravated assault. At his 2017 trial, the jury returned a split verdict against Mr. McElrath of “not guilty by reason of insanity” regarding malice murder, and “guilty but mentally ill” as to the other counts. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Mr. McElrath appealed, arguing the verdicts were “repugnant” under Georgia law and that the conviction should be reversed.

His petition to the U.S. Supreme Court stated that according to the Supreme Court of Georgia, “inconsistent verdicts” involve “seemingly incompatible” conclusions.

“The ‘classic example,’ it said, is where the jury acquits a defendant on a predicate offense but then convicts on the compound offense,” but the state Supreme Court “has held that inconsistent verdicts should stand.”

Despite that, Georgia law holds that repugnant verdicts take place when the jury must “make affirmative findings shown on the record that cannot logically or legally exist at the same time.”

When that happens, such “verdicts are ‘a logical and legal impossibility,’ and both verdicts must be vacated and remanded for a new trial.”

The Supreme Court of Georgia tossed both verdicts and sent the case back for a new trial.

Mr. McElrath argued the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition against double jeopardy prevented the state from trying him again on the acquitted charge.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote the court’s brief 10-page opinion (pdf) in McElrath v. Georgia. Justice Samuel Alito wrote a 1-page concurring opinion.

Justice Jackson wrote that even though the jury’s decision in the case was unusual, it could not be invalidated.

“Whatever the basis, the Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits second-guessing the reason for a jury’s acquittal. As a result, ‘the jury holds an unreviewable power to return a verdict of not guilty even for impermissible reasons,’” she wrote, citing Smith v. United States (2023).

“We simply cannot know why the jury in McElrath’s case acted as it did, and the Double Jeopardy Clause forbids us to guess. ‘To conclude otherwise would impermissibly authorize judges to usurp the jury right,’” she wrote, again quoting from the Smith precedent.

The jury’s finding that Mr. McElrath was not guilty by reason of insanity means Georgia failed to prove he was criminally responsible and that holding was equal to an acquittal, she wrote.

Georgia law provides that a defendant who establishes an insanity defense “shall not be found guilty of [the] crime.” The jury’s determination that the defendant was not guilty of malice murder by reason of insanity was unquestionably a ruling that the prosecution had failed to prove criminal liability, she wrote.

“This conclusion is consistent with Georgia’s concession that if the ‘not guilty’ verdict were considered in isolation—that is, if the jury had reached the same conclusion under the same circumstances on a single count—it would have constituted a valid verdict of acquittal under state law. … As we have long recognized, jeopardy clearly terminates under these circumstances.”

Justice Alito Concurs

In his concurring opinion, Justice Alito wrote that there was “indisputably an acquittal on the malice-murder charge.”

“Because the Constitution does not permit appellate review of an acquittal, the State Supreme Court’s decision must be reversed. As I understand it, our holding extends no further,” he wrote.

The U.S. Supreme Court recognizes 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. Some States follow this practice, and our decision does not address it,” he continued.

“We have held that federal law does not prevent the acceptance of inconsistent verdicts … but we have never held that the Constitution mandates that practice—which is not necessarily favorable to either the prosecution or the defense.

“Nothing that we say today should be understood to express any view about whether a not-guilty verdict that is inconsistent with a verdict on another count and is not accepted by the trial judge constitutes an ‘acquittal’ for double jeopardy purposes,” Justice Alito wrote.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Supreme Court of Georgia on Feb. 21 and remanded the case to that court for further proceedings.