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Mississippi Supreme Court Reverses Conviction due to Double Jeopardy Violation Because of Mistrial Without Manifest Necessity in Initial Trial

A woman in Tunica County, Mississippi, reported a man running into and kicking the door to her home. He left after she brandished a shotgun. Jeremy Harris was apprehended nearby. He was charged with attempted burglary of a dwelling with the intent to commit larceny, and the case went to a jury trial.

Officers testified that the woman’s front door had a broken window and scrape, scratch, and kick marks. They also testified that Harris was “acting inappropriately” and was singing to himself but did not appear to be in need of medical assistance.

Harris testified that he had been diagnosed with epilepsy and had around one seizure a month. He had previously been treated at a seizure clinic but was no longer able to get the medication. He could remember taking a walk to get ice for his wife on the day of the incident, but the next thing he recalled was waking up in the jail. Harris offered no further testimony, and the prosecutor did not object during his testimony.

The trial judge told the attorneys he was unaware of any state law that permitted epilepsy as a defense. Defense counsel said it was not to be used as a defense but rather to show that Harris did not have the requisite intent to commit a crime. The prosecutor noted that there had been an objection for failure to give notice of an alibi, which the court overruled when defense counsel was cross-examining the officers about Harris’ behavior after he was arrested. The trial judge ordered the attorneys to provide it with any relevant case law on epilepsy as a defense by the end of the lunch break.

The prosecutor offered cases in which epilepsy was compared to insanity and argued there had been no notice regarding an insanity defense. Defense counsel argued that he was not pleading an insanity defense and was not requesting an insanity instruction from the court. When the court said it would proceed with standard jury instructions, the prosecutor moved for a mistrial, which the court denied. However, the court later reconsidered and granted a mistrial, ruling that epilepsy was akin to an insanity defense.

During a pretrial hearing prior to the second trial, the court found that epilepsy was not tantamount to insanity. After hearing similar testimony, the jury found Harris guilty. He was sentenced to ten years in prison with five suspended.

George T. Holmes and Justin Taylor Cook of the State Public Defender’s Office represented Harris on appeal before the Mississippi Supreme Court.

The Court began its analysis by noting that the State is prohibited from retyring a defendant unless there’s a “manifest necessity” for the trial court to declare a mistrial. Jenkins v. State, 759 So. 2d 1229 (Miss. 2000). The Court acknowledged that “there is no simple rule or formula defining the standard of ‘manifest necessity….’” Id. The decision to grant a mistrial is within the “sound discretion of the trial court.” Gunn v. State, 56 So. 3d 568 (Miss. 2011). The Mississippi Supreme Court provided the following guidance in Montgomery v. State, 253 So. 3d 305 (Miss. 2018): “[t]he amount of discretion a trial court has to find manifest necessity turns on the reason for mistrial.”

In the present case, the Court noted that the prosecutor never timely objected to the use of epilepsy as a defense to intent. It noted that neither insanity nor alibi was at issue in the trial, so Harris was not required to put the prosecution on notice of his intent to use epilepsy as a defense. Had he presented expert testimony regarding epilepsy, he would have been required to give notice of the expert testimony. But he did not use an expert and thus was not required to give notice.

Since epilepsy is not insanity—as the trial court later admitted—its reason for granting a mistrial was flawed. Thus, the Court held there was no manifest necessity for a mistrial, and since jeopardy attached at the beginning of the first trial, the second trial constituted prohibited double jeopardy.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the conviction and rendered judgment in Harris’ favor. See: Harris v. State, 2021 Miss. LEXIS 91 (2021). 

 

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Related legal case

Harris v. State

 

 

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