Massachusetts Legal Developments Blog

Supreme Court Enforces Double Jeopardy Protection

Sentencing under Massachusetts Murder Laws

In Massachusetts, the sentence for murder in the first degree is life without possibility of parole. Murder in the first degree occurs when someone commits a premeditated, intentional killing. The sentence for murder in the second degree, on the other hand, is life with the possibility of parole. If you are convicted of murder in the second degree, you generally become eligible for parole within 15 to 25 years. 

What is Double Jeopardy

Double jeopardy falls under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which states that defendants cannot be charged for exactly the same offense twice in the same jurisdiction. It is possible to charge someone for two different offenses with the same evidence, however – and it is also possible to try defendants separately under virtually identical State and federal laws. 

Supreme Court Issues Important Decision on Double Jeopardy Incident

Despite protections from double jeopardy, sometimes defendants face the prospect of new trials for the same offenses. The Supreme Court was forced to step in in one recent case involving a mentally ill defendant who successfully pursued a not guilty verdict by reason of insanity. However, he was still convicted of lesser offenses in connection with the same crime. The State courts in this case found that these two rulings were incompatible or “repugnant.” In other words, he should have been acquitted of both sets of crimes if he was truly insane. 

This subsequently led to the theoretically impossible scenario of double jeopardy. It was at this point that the Supreme Court stepped in and established that the inconsistency between verdicts was not an issue. This man could not be tried again under any circumstances, and the decision was reversed and remanded. Specifically, Justice Jackson stated that “The Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits second-guessing the reason for a jury’s acquittal. She went on to state that the jury had “unreviewable power to return a verdict of not guilty even for impermissible reasons.”