The New Jersey Supreme Court has declined to adopt a stricter double jeopardy standard, upholding an appellate ruling Wednesday that called for a second trial for a Jersey City man accused of vehicular manslaughter.
Stephen Zadroga had sought to prevent a new trial, arguing that prosecutors tainted the case by testing someone else’s blood for alcohol content. Zadroga had requested the court create a new rule that would bar retrial if a mistrial was caused because of prosecutorial error — whether intentional or not — but the court refused in a unanimous ruling, finding it prefers existing tests that balance a defendant’s rights against the public’s interest in fair trials.
“We have previously held that the ‘essence to the doctrine of jeopardy’ is ‘that the State may not retreat from the field when its case turns sour and then be permitted to sally forth on a future day before a new jury when its case is refreshed and reinforced,’” reads the opinion by Justice Rachel Wainer Apter. “The State did no such thing here.”
Zadroga was charged with aggravated manslaughter, death by auto, and multiple counts of driving while intoxicated after a 2017 Jersey City crash that left his best friend, a Jersey City firefighter, dead.
Before grand jurors indicted him, they were told Zadroga had a blood alcohol content of 0.376% — nearly four-and-a-half times the legal limit — but it became clear during his trial that the figure came from the blood of a man who died months before the crash.
Zadroga and prosecutors both backed a mistrial, and the trial judge found there was a manifest necessity to call one because the grand jury relied upon false testimony when issuing its indictment.
The judge allowed Zadroga to be retried on the manslaughter and death by auto charges, a decision later affirmed by an appellate panel, which also barred prosecutors from raising any charges or evidence relating to Zadroga’s alleged intoxication.
Double jeopardy is a constitutional principle that bars individuals from being tried repeatedly for the same crime and protects a defendant’s right to have their case tried before the first jury empaneled to do so.
But the protections aren’t absolute. Absent acquittal, double jeopardy only protects an individual from retrial if their first trial was improperly terminated.
The Supreme Court ruled Zadroga’s initial trial was properly terminated, finding a mistrial was necessary because no amount of jury instruction would fix a defective indictment.
The high court declined to weigh whether a motion to dismiss lodged by Zadroga’s attorney amounted to a request for a mistrial, as prosecutors argued, finding it irrelevant because there was a manifest necessity to call a mistrial.
Republished courtesy of New Jersey Monitor, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.