California Supreme Court rules that a partial verdict of acquittal on first degree murder prevents retrial on that charge

People v. Aranda; S214116

The California Supreme Court reaffirmed its past holding that a court must accept a partial verdict of acquittal as to a charged greater offense when a jury has expressly indicated it has acquitted on that offense but has deadlocked on uncharged lesser included offenses. [Stone v. Superior Court (1982) 31 Cal.3d 503 (Stone)]

The Stone Rule and Federal Double Jeopardy Principles

Federal double jeopardy principles do not require a court to accept a partial verdict. [Blueford v. Arkansas (2012) 566 U.S. 599 (Blueford)]
The Court concluded that the Stone rule survives as an interpretation of the state Constitution’s double jeopardy clause. The trial court, in this case, failed to receive a partial acquittal verdict on first degree murder and declared a mistrial on that charge. The Court ruled that the defendant may not be retried on that allegation.

Partial Jury Verdict

The foreperson reported the jury was “at a stalemate” and explained: “So we’ve basically ruled out murder in the first degree. So then we moved to murder in the second degree. … So we worked down to voluntary manslaughter, but there’s still a couple that are still stuck on second degree.” The foreperson later repeated that some jurors “are stuck on second degree and then went down to voluntary,” but they were “working through it.” Deliberations continued.

The next court day, defense counsel asked the jury be given a “not guilty” verdict form for first degree murder. The prosecutor objected. The foreperson asked to speak with the court and again reported the jury was at an impasse, explaining that one juror “thinks it’s second degree,” “[a]nd then we’ve got two that are on the side of voluntary. And then we’ve got nine that are not guilty.”

Trial Court denies defense request for a ‘not guilty’ jury form on 1st Degree Murder

The defense requested a “not guilty” verdict form on first degree murder. The court denied the request, stating: “I don’t want to change horses in midstream. We sent it in a certain way, and to change anything makes it seem like we’re directing them as to which way to think, and I don’t want to do that.”

After the court concluded the jury was deadlocked and declared a mistrial, the defense moved to dismiss the first degree murder allegation on double jeopardy grounds. Relying on Stone, defendant argued the court’s failure to allow the jury to acquit him of first degree murder barred a retrial on that charge. Defendant also argued double jeopardy barred a trial on second degree murder and voluntary manslaughter as well. The court ultimately dismissed the first degree murder charge but declined to dismiss the lesser offenses. The People unsuccessfully sought reconsideration based upon Blueford, which had recently been decided.
The People, represented by the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office, appealed the dismissal of the first degree murder charge. The Court of Appeal affirmed. The Supreme Court likewise affirm.

The Double Jeopardy Clause

Under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 15, of the California Constitution, a person may not be twice placed in jeopardy for the same offense. This double jeopardy principle bars a second prosecution for the same crime after an acquittal or conviction. [People v. Anderson (2009) 47 Cal.4th 92, 103-104](Anderson).) Even if a jury returns no verdict on a particular charge, retrial is only permitted in limited circumstances. “ ‘Retrial after discharge of a jury without “manifest” (in federal terminology) or “legal” necessity violates the protections afforded under both’ the federal and state constitutional double jeopardy clauses.” [People v. Carbajal (2013) 56 Cal.4th 521, 534 (Carbajal)] Although “the failure of a jury to agree on a verdict is an instance of ‘manifest necessity’ permitting retrial of the defendant” “granting an unnecessary mistrial bars retrial” under double jeopardy\principles.

Stone and partial verdicts

Stone held that “the trial court is constitutionally obligated to afford the jury an opportunity to render a partial verdict of acquittal on a greater offense when the jury is deadlocked only on an uncharged lesser included offense. Failure to do so will cause a subsequently declared mistrial to be without legal necessity.” Stone was charged with a single count of murder. The jury was instructed on, and received guilty verdict forms for, first and second degree murder, and voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. It was given a single verdict form for acquittal on all charges, as well as a verdict form for “justifiable homicide.” After seven days of deliberations, the foreman reported in open court that there were no votes for first or second degree murder but various votes for both forms of manslaughter and justifiable homicide.

The court denied defense counsel’s request to accept a partial verdict of acquittal on murder and ordered further deliberations. After another day and a half of deliberations, the foreman again indicated that there were no votes for first or second degree murder and various votes for manslaughter and justifiable homicide. The court declared a mistrial and discharged the jury.

Stone reasoned there was no legal necessity for a mistrial as to murder and a partial verdict of acquittal could have been taken. Under our statutory scheme, the prosecutor has discretion to separately charge all lesser included offenses (see Pen. Code, § 954) or to charge only the greater offense (see Pen. Code, § 1159). Stone reasoned that if our statutory scheme requires the taking of partial verdicts when included offenses are charged separately, it would be “anomalous to formulate a rule that prevents a trial court from receiving a partial verdict on a greater offense on which the jury clearly favors acquittal merely because the prosecutor elected to charge only that offense, and left it to the court to instruct on any lesser included offense supported by the evidence. In addition to seriously infringing on the defendant’s double jeopardy interest in avoiding retrial for offenses on which he has been factually acquitted, such a rule would make his substantive rights turn on the formality of whether he was charged in separate counts with the greater offense and the lesser included offense, or was charged in a single count with only the greater offense.”

The Stone rule “protects a defendant from retrial when the jury agrees that the greater offense was not proven but cannot agree on a lesser included offense. Without the rule, a general declaration of mistrial would disguise the fact that the jury agreed the defendant was not guilty of the greater offense, making the defendant subject to retrial on both the greater and lesser offenses.”

Stone Rule not overruled by Federal Blueford rule not requiring acceptance of partial verdict of acquittal

The People argued Stone has been overruled by Blueford, which held that the federal double jeopardy clause does not require a court accept a partial verdict of acquittal with respect to a greater offense.

Blueford argued the foreperson’s report indicating the jury was “ ‘unanimous against’ ” capital and first degree murder constituted an acquittal for double jeopardy purposes. The high court rejected the claim. The court reasoned the foreperson’s report “was not a final resolution of anything. When the foreperson told the court how the jury had voted on each offense, the jury’s deliberations had not yet concluded. … The fact that deliberations continued after the report deprives that report of the finality necessary to constitute an acquittal on the murder offenses.” Because of that possibility, that the jury could revisit the offenses of capital and first-degree murder, the foreperson’s report prior to the end of deliberations lacked the finality necessary to amount to an acquittal on those offenses.

Blueford makes clear that the federal double jeopardy clause does not require the taking of a partial verdict of acquittal on a greater offense when the jury has indicated a deadlock on a lesser included offense. To the extent Stone suggested otherwise, it has been abrogated by Blueford.
But this resolution does not end the inquiry. Although the Fifth Amendment does not require the taking of partial verdicts, neither does it forbid the practice.