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Maine Supreme Court Rules Double Jeopardy Bars Re-Use of Evidence at Second Trial After Acquittal Based on Same Evidence at First Trial on Different Charges

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine held that double jeopardy barred the use of the same evidence used in a first trial that resulted in an acquittal on other charges during a second trial on a different charge.

John Weckerly was indicted in 2012 on, among other charges, multiple counts of arson. After a six-day trial, the jury found Weckerly not guilty of all the counts except a single arson count (“Count 1”), where he allegedly burned a fire marshal’s car. For that charge, the jury could not reach a verdict, and the State retried him for that count. During the second trial, the court admitted evidence used in the first trial related to the arson charges for which he was acquitted (“Counts 9-12”). The jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to seven years in prison, all of it suspended. Additionally, he was placed on probation, and he appealed.

Both the U.S. and Maine Constitutions prohibit putting a citizen in double jeopardy for the same offense. The prohibition against double jeopardy bars a second prosecution following “an acquittal or conviction, or the imposition of multiple punishments for the same offense.”

The question before the Maine Supreme Court was whether double jeopardy bars evidence that was used in an earlier trial that ended in an acquittal from being used in a subsequent trial on a different charge. The Court concluded it did.

The U.S. Supreme Court instructed in Ashe v. Swenson, 397 U.S. 436 (1970), that when the first acquittal is based on evidence the government wants to use again in the second trial, the trial court must examine the record of the prior proceeding to determine whether the jury “grounded its verdict upon an issue other than” the issue before the jury in the second trial. If that issue had been the basis for the final judgment of acquittal, “collateral estoppel” prevents consideration of that issue again in another trial. Collateral estoppel is “embodied in the Fifth Amendment guarantee against double jeopardy,” the Court stated, finding that because the first jury found Ashe was not one of the robbers, collateral estoppel barred the State from using the same evidence to prove in another trial that he was one of the robbers of a different victim at the same poker game.

The Maine Supreme Court explained: “To evaluate a double jeopardy collateral estoppel argument, we conduct a case-by-case inquiry by examining the evidence presented and the theory of the defense in the first trial compared to the charges levied and the evidence offered in the second trial.”

Weckerly had the burden to show that “the ultimate issue for which the evidence was offered in his second trial was necessarily decided in his first trial,” the Court said. He had to show that the jury in the first trial acquitted him on the other charges or that he was not the person who committed the arson. However, if the jury acquitted him based on some other factor, double jeopardy did not bar use of the same evidence, the Court stated.

The record was clear that Weckerly was acquitted of Counts 9-12 because the jury, based on the evidence, could not conclude that he was the arsonist with respect to those charges. “There is little doubt that the basis for the jury’s [acquittal] was that the State had not proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Weckerly was the person who had committed the acts alleged,” the trial court said when it entered judgment of acquittal on Counts 9-12. Consequently, evidence that he was the person who committed the acts alleged in Counts 9-12 was not admissible for any purpose in his second trial, the Supreme Court concluded.

Therefore, the Court ruled that the admission of the evidence at issue “was barred by collateral estoppel and violated Weckerly’s right to be protected from double jeopardy.”

Accordingly, the Maine Supreme Court vacated Weckerly’s conviction and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: State v. Weckerly, 2018 ME 40 (2018). 

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