By Jonathan Stempel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday said Michigan cannot retry a defendant whose arson case had been thrown out by a trial judge who mistakenly required state prosecutors to prove more than they needed.
The 8-1 decision was a victory for defendant Lamar Evans, who had argued that the U.S. Constitution's general prohibition against being tried twice for the same crime, known as double jeopardy, barred a retrial.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority that while all sides agreed that Evans' trial judge erred in ordering the defendant's acquittal midtrial on the basis of a misunderstanding of state law, the error was "of no moment" for double jeopardy purposes, even if it created what Michigan called a "windfall" for the defendant.
"Having chosen to vest its courts with the power to grant midtrial acquittals, the state must bear the corresponding risk that some acquittals will be granted in error," she wrote.
Evans had been caught on September 22, 2008, by two Detroit police officers as he ran with a gasoline can away from a burning house, where gas had been poured inside.
He was acquitted after state prosecutors were unable to prove that the house was a dwelling, a level of proof that the trial judge demanded but which was not required under state law.
Last March, however, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that Evans could be retried because the acquittal was based on an error of law, not the facts of the alleged crime. Wednesday's decision reversed that ruling.
"The decision affirms the ancient principle that when a state puts someone on trial, we don't revisit an acquittal to see if there was a mistake and give the state another bite of the apple," David Moran, a University of Michigan law professor representing Evans, said in a phone interview.
"If the state were allowed to try people over and over again, it would be a form of government oppression," he said.
In a telephone interview, Evans, 43, maintained his innocence, and said he is now a pastor at the Richards Temple God of Church in Christ in Toledo, Ohio.
"I am very pleased with the outcome," Evans said. "I feel sorry for people who are wrongly accused, and was fortunate and blessed that the professors from the University of Michigan picked up my case, and believed that I was an innocent person. Not everyone gets a chance like I did."
OUT OF THIN AIR
Justice Samuel Alito dissented. He said that because the trial judge pulled "out of thin air" a higher burden of proof, there was no actual acquittal on the crime for which Evans had been charged. Alito said Wednesday's decision deprived Michigan of its right to "one fair opportunity" at a conviction.
Timothy Baughman, chief of appeals in the Wayne County, Michigan, prosecutor's office, who argued the state's case, said he was disappointed with the decision.
He said Michigan's supreme court was mulling whether to require state judges who grant midtrial acquittals to offer prosecutors 24 hours to seek reversals. "If this rule had been in effect at the time of Evans' acquittal, we would clearly have won a stay and the trial would have resumed," Baughman said.
Joining Sotomayor's opinion were Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
Evans' appeal drew support from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The U.S. Department of Justice supported Michigan's appeal, calling the matter an "egregious case" that did not require upending decades of precedents.
The case is Evans v. Michigan, No. 11-1327.
JURY TRIAL, PLAIN ERROR
The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued decisions in two more criminal cases.
* In Johnson v. Williams, No. 11-465, the nine justices unanimously reversed a federal appeals court ruling that had thrown out the murder conviction of Tara Sheneva Williams over the 1993 death of a Long Beach, California, liquor store owner. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had found that California state courts did not address whether Williams' trial judge improperly removed a juror who might have voted to acquit, depriving Williams of her Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. But the Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, said federal courts reviewing similar cases must presume that state courts decided the merits of any federal claims, and that Williams did not overcome this presumption.
* In Henderson v. U.S., No. 11-9307, the Supreme Court said a federal appeals court may correct a "plain error" that affects a defendant's "substantial rights" if the error was plain at the time of appellate review, not at the time of trial. The 6-3 decision by Justice Stephen Breyer was a victory for Armarcion Henderson, who challenged a lengthening of his prison term so that he could obtain drug treatment, a practice the Supreme Court did not forbid until after his trial.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Howard Goller, David Storey, Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman)