PHOENIX — Arizona’s attorney general wants the U.S. Supreme Court to rule prosecutors are entitled to multiple attempts to convict someone of first-degree murder even after a jury effectively finds the charge has no legal merit.
The case involves a defendant named Philip J. Martin. The first jury that heard first-degree murder charges against him could not agree. Instead the jury found him guilty of second-degree murder, resulting in a 16-year prison term.
That conviction was overturned because the trial judge refused a request by Martin’s attorney to tell the jury about the right to use force in prevention of a crime.
That went directly to Martin’s defense that he shot his neighbor, who was on Martin’s Golden Valley property, because he feared for his own safety.
At a new trial, prosecutors once again brought up the first-degree murder allegation, this time with jurors agreeing and Martin being sentenced to life behind bars.
But the Arizona Supreme Court in August tossed that conviction, ruling the second trial amounted to “double jeopardy,” with Martin put on trial twice for the same offense.
That paved the way for a third trial — and only on the second-degree murder charge.
Now, Attorney General Mark Brnovich wants the U.S. Supreme Court to rule the Arizona justices were wrong.
Brnovich says the law makes it clear that when there is a “hung jury,” prosecutors are free to retry a case on the same charges.
But Arizona Justice Clint Bolick, who wrote the decision for the state Supreme Court, said this isn’t that kind of case.
He said jurors did, in fact, reach a verdict. It just wasn’t the one prosecutors wanted.
“The general rule is that the prosecution is entitled to only one complete opportunity to prove the case,” Bolick wrote.
There is no question but that Martin killed neighbor Steven Jeffrey Schwartz with a single shotgun blast as Schwartz was walking toward Martin’s home.
According to court records, Martin admitted to police at the scene, and again at trial, that he shot Schwartz because he had ignored Martin’s command to get off his property. Martin said he believed that the victim was armed and was going to harm him.
Jurors in the 2013 Mohave County trial were given a verdict form with three options from which they could select for the first-degree murder charge: guilty, not guilty, or unable to agree.
The second part of the form contained two options for second-degree murder: guilty or not guilty.
It advised the jury to complete that second section only if it found Martin not guilty of first-degree murder or was unable to agree on that charge.
After about two hours jurors said they could not agree on the first charge but concluded Martin was guilty of second-degree murder.
In legal briefs, Brnovich told the U.S. Supreme Court there’s no need for a third trial and that the results of the second trial and the guilty verdict on first-degree murder should stand.
He said the Arizona justices misinterpreted the law when they voided the results of the second trial. Brnovich specifically argued that Martin knew there was a risk that he could be retried on first-degree murder when he successfully appealed the second-degree murder conviction.
Arizona Justice Bolick rejected claims by prosecutors that Martin’s successful decision to appeal his conviction for second-degree murder, the one that was overturned, somehow allows them at a second trial to try again for that first-degree murder charge.
The U.S. justices have not set a date to decide whether to allow Brnovich to pursue his appeal.