Criminal Practice

Motion for New Trial Doesn't Preclude Double Jeopardy Claim

, The Legal Intelligencer

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A criminal defendant who moves for a new trial does not necessarily waive double jeopardy arguments in future proceedings, the state Superior Court has ruled in a holding that overturns a more than five-year-old decision.

On Jan. 9, a nine-judge panel decided to allow a convicted defendant's double jeopardy arguments to go forward following the defense's motion for a new trial. The lower court's decision denying the double jeopardy arguments was based on the court's 2007 ruling in Commonwealth v. Constant, which held that a defendant who moves for a new trial waives any argument that double jeopardy bars a second trial.

Writing for the majority in Commonwealth v. Minnis, Judge Christine L. Donohue said the main consideration for double jeopardy arguments should not be procedural but based upon the reasoning behind the motion.

"The foregoing analysis establishes that where the defendant alleges prosecutorial misconduct as a basis for double jeopardy protection, the outcome depends on the nature of the alleged misconduct," she said. "Our analysis does not turn on the procedural means by which the defendant seeks or obtains a new trial."

Judges John T. Bender, Kate Ford Elliott, Mary Jane Bowes, Cheryl Lynn Allen, Anne E. Lazarus, Paula Francisco Ott and David N. Wecht joined the decision. Judge Susan Peikes Gantman concurred in the result.

According to Elliot J. Segel of Segel & Solymosi, who represented defendant James Phillip Minnis, the Constant case created a "Hobson's choice," where defendants were forced to give up one constitutional right to pursue another.

"It forced a defendant to choose whether to give up their better chance, which was a motion for new trial, in order to pursue their right for complete dismissal under the double jeopardy protection," he said. "The Minnis decision said, 'We're not going to force people into that situation. You can't give up one in order to be forced to choose another.'"

According to Donohue, Minnis was found guilty of sexually abusing his girlfriend's minor daughter. At trial, a forensic nurse examiner testified; however, in 2010, the district attorney investigated allegations that several of the expert's examinations and testimonies in separate cases were unreliable, Donohue said. The district attorney later notified defendants whose cases involved the expert, and some defendants were given new trials.

Minnis filed a post-conviction relief petition seeking dismissal of the charges or an alternate trial, and the Superior Court granted a new trial.

Minnis contended that the state knew of the expert's unreliability well in advance of Minnis' prosecution but still presented her at trial. He began performing discovery activities to support his double jeopardy claim based on prosecutorial misconduct.

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