Local legal system ba­­ttles constitutional issues

It might be easy for those of us who live here in Northeastern California to believe all the important legal battles happen in courtrooms far, far away. But it isn’t true.

A Lassen County Superior Court judge, a deputy district attorney and a local defense lawyer wrangled with a double jeopardy issue last week involving a Westwood man whom a jury had acquitted of an attempted murder charge.

The double jeopardy issue arose because while the jury found the defendant not guilty of attempted murder, it was unable to reach a verdict on the lesser but included charge of attempted voluntary manslaughter. That charge was not included in the original filing by the district attorney’s office, but the jury received instructions from the judge regarding that charge. According to state law the judge is required to issue those instructions on that lesser charge even though the district attorney had not filed it.

So the thorny questions before the court — can the Lassen County District Attorney’s Office refile the lesser but included and unfiled attempted voluntary manslaughter charge which resulted in hung jury or would a retrial on such a charge, in fact, be double jeopardy due to the jury’s decision on the greater offense — the attempted murder charge.

After acquitting the defendant on the attempted murder charge, the foreman of the jury, without revealing which way the jury leaned, told the judge it had deadlocked 7-5 on the attempted voluntary manslaughter charge. The judge gave further instructions to the jury, but the foreman said he doubted those instructions would help the jury reach a verdict. So the judge declared a mistrial and sent the deputy district attorney and the defender off to research the retrial issue, and held two subsequent hearings.

As we all know, the notion that a defendant not be put in jeopardy twice on the same charges and same set of facts is a constitutional right guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Of course, the district attorney’s office wants to prosecute the attempted voluntary manslaughter charge, and the defense argues that amounts to double jeopardy.

In the end, the judge ruled the defendant could be retried on the lesser but included charge despite the jury’s acquittal on the attempted murder charge and its inability to reach a decision on the attempted voluntary manslaughter charge.

The differences between attempted murder and attempted voluntary manslaughter depend upon the technical legal elements presented during trial — facts to be weighed by the jury during its deliberations. In this case, the deputy district attorney told the judge the district attorney’s office had interviewed the jurors and determined their reasons for rejecting the attempted voluntary manslaughter charge. He said the issues that flummoxed the jurors easily could be addressed during a second trial.

This case showcases the judge’s, the district attorney’s and the defense attorney’s staunch determination to ensure justice is done and the rule of law prevails as it should. People’s lives and the community’s safety hang in the balance of as all parts of our legal system struggle to fairly, properly and correctly resolve these questions and see that justice is served.

The good news is, they’re dealing with it transparently in public view and in open court— our local legal system is working.