Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mistrials Demystified

Yesterday, while we all had our eyes on City Hall, over at the Courthouse, a high profile trial was getting derailed.

A mistrial was declared in the Corey Lyon's double murder case. That means the jury was let go and sometime, probably in the not too distant future, a new jury will be selected and the case, which was nearing its conclusion, will have to be retried starting over from scratch.

Mind you, this was a trial that started back in October.

What caused Judge Brian Hill to declare the mistrial? According to news accounts (which is all I can go by since I wasn't there) Tom Lyons, brother of not only the defendant but of one of the victims as well, testified that other members of his family believed that his brother Corey, the defendant, had indeed killed the victims. Implicit in that statement is that members of the family had actually told him that. But unless they told him that while they were in the courtroom, on the witness stand and while they were under oath, Tom Lyon's testimony violated the hearsay rule, which says that statements made outside of the courtroom, generally can't be considered as evidence inside the courtroom.

This mistrial business had a lot of the commenters over at Edhat puzzled about the whole procedure.

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Sometimes, statements that shouldn't be allowed into evidence do get in. Most times the error can be corrected by instructing the jury that they cannot consider the statement as evidence of the defendant's guilt and usually that admonition is considered to be sufficient. Of course, once the toothpaste is out of the tube you can never get it back in, so occasionally, depending on the circumstances, the admonition to disregard the evidence won't be enough to avoid prejudice to the defendant. If the case had been allowed to continue and Lyons had been convicted, he would have at least one ground for appealing the jury's verdict. And depending on how serious an error an appellate court determined it to be, it could mean a reversal of the conviction and a new trial.

So, if Judge Hill had any doubts as to whether the jury could really put the witnesses statements about what the defendant's family believed out of their minds, declaring a mistrial was probably the right thing to do.

Mistrials, and the re-trials that inevitably follow them, do not violate the Constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy. (The proposition that one can't be tried more than once for the same crime.) That is as long as it's the defense that asks that a mistrial be declared. By making the motion for a mistrial the defense is deemed to have waived their right to object to a re-trial on the grounds of double jeopardy.

On the other hand, if the prosecution asks for a mistrial and the motion is granted, a retrial would violate the double jeopardy clause because there has been no waiver of protection against double jeopardy by the defendant.

According to the account in the News-Press yesterday, the prosecutor on the case, Gordon Auchincloss, had joined defense attorney Bob Sanger in making a motion for a mistrial, but later withdrew it. If that's true, that would have been a rookie mistake by a veteran prosecutor. (Assuming he didn't withdraw the motion before it was ruled upon.) If the mistrial had been deemed to have been granted on the prosecution's motion, jeopardy would have attached and a retrial would have been barred. Now that would have been a disaster.
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