Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Meaning of an Acquittal

One of many strange moments in the prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman came when U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller stated that he would consider charges of which Siegelman was acquitted in determining a sentence.

Many Siegelman supporters (and maybe a few Siegelman detractors) responded with, "What the heck, how can that be?" (or words to that effect). It just didn't seem to make sense.

But the good folks at TPM Muckraker did a public service by consulting an expert who stated that Fuller was operating within the law by taking a broad view of charges against Siegelman during the sentencing phase. In the process, TPM Muckraker educated us on how an acquittal actually is viewed under the law.

And we will show how these concepts connect to the case we are examining here at Legal Schnauzer.

TPM's expert cited the case United States v. Vernon Watts, 519 U.S. 148 (1997). In Watts, the U.S. Supreme Court makes two key findings regarding the nature of an acquittal under the law:

* "We have explained that acquittal on criminal charges does not prove that the defendant is innocent; it merely proves the existence of a reasonable doubt as to his guilt." (U.S. v. One Assortment of 89 Firearms, 465 U.S. 354, 1984)

* "An acquittal is not a finding of any fact. An acquittal can only be an acknowledgment that the government failed to prove an essential element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. Without specific jury findings, no one can logically or realistically draw any factual finding inferences. . . ."

I must confess that I was among those Siegelman supporters who thought Fuller surely must be acting outside the law by considering charges of which Siegelman had been acquitted. But I thank TPM Muckraker for setting me, and many others, straight.

In the end, we learn that an acquittal is not as powerful a finding, under the law, as we might have thought. Next, we look at what implications that idea has on our case here at Legal Schnauzer.


mooncat said...

Sentencing people based on things they were acquitted of still doesn't seem right. So they've been doing it for a while -- what kind of legislation would it take to stop this practice?

legalschnauzer said...

Good question. My best guess is that it would take Congressional action to override a standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court.

I've not done a lot of research on this, but the cases cited by TPM involve things like cases where someone was convicted say of drug charges but acquitted of weapons charges. Guess the same principal applies to public corruption cases, but you wonder if that's the way it should be.

herding old cats said...

When sentencing and other legal matters don't seem right to most folks, then it seems to me the legal community, not to mention all the rest of us, needs to be a little worried about the rule of law. Please, this needs to make sense to non-lawyers, or you are facing a rule of privilege which will not stand.
I do not wish to be in the position of guarding my property 24/7 just because smart people have argued law out of existence.