What Does Acquitted Mean? Plus High Profile Examples

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An acquittal is the former acknowledgement that the state or federal prosecutor in a criminal trial has failed to prove the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury may find the defendant not guilty, but the acquittal does not always prove the defendant is innocent. Because of this fact, the defendant acquitted in a criminal trial still can be sued in a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit, where the burden of proof is much less.

Acquittals are granted when it is obvious there is insufficient evidence to prove the guilt of the defendant. A motion for acquittal can be filed during the criminal trial after the prosecution and defense have presented their arguments and witnesses. Once the acquittal is granted, the person no longer can be prosecuted for the same crime.

Reprosecution After Acquittal

Per the 5th amendment of the US Constitution, a defendant cannot be retried after an acquittal. If a person would be able to be tried for the same offense again, this is called double jeopardy, which the Constitution views in very low light. The argument under US law is that allowing a second trial after acquittal, even if the acquittal was a mistake, would present a high risk that the US government could with vast financial resources wear down the defense so that even if he were innocent, he would be found guilty.

Because the acquittal under US law is final, there is no appeal under the Constitution possible after such a judgement. This fact was established under Kepner v. US, 93, which arose under the appeals system in the Philippines where the appellate court could do a review of the record, set aside the decision of the judge and enter a conviction.

Acquittal by Jury

There is little controversy under US law once the jury has acquitted the defendant. The government cannot through an appeal or starting of a new prosecution, put you on trial again for the same crime. Therefore, the US Supreme Court has found even when the trial results are set aside because the initial indictment was invalidated, or for another reason the trial results were voidable, the acquittal judgement must still stay in place.

Acquittal By Judge

 When the evidence of guilt is weak, the judge man issue a judgment of acquittal. This is almost the same as an acquittal by jury. The defendant has the right in all federal courts and some states to make a motion for judgment of acquittal.

The motion for judgement of acquittal is due to trial evidence not being sufficient for conviction. This means the defendant is arguing that a reasonable jury would not be able to convict beyond a reasonable doubt.

The defense may file a motion for judgment of acquittal during the trial or within a specific time after the jury renders its guilty verdict. For instance, in Pennsylvania, the defendant must file the motion within 10 days of the jury verdict. This motion also can be made after the prosecutor has made its case.

Note that the judge may not issue this judgment just because they believe the jury is incorrect; he or she must view the case in the most favorable way to the prosecution and find that the evidence does not establish guilty. Only the evidence presented in the trial can be considered.

When the trial judge acquits the defendant, there also is no possibility of retrial for the same offense. But it can be in some cases hard to determine if the action of the trial judge is an acquittal or if it was a dismissal or another action that the federal prosecutor may be able to appeal. The question is if the judge’s ruling is actually a resolution of some of the facts of the case.

There are some rare exceptions respecting the finality of a trial judge acquittal. First, as the main purpose of the due process clause under the Constitution is to prevent successive trials and prosecution appeals, it is probably the case that if the judge allows the case to go to the jury and they convict, and the judge enters an acquittal, the prosecution may be able to appeal.

Also, if the judge enters a motion of acquittal, even if it is based upon the conclusion that the evidence is not enough to convict, the prosecution could appeal if jeopardy was not yet attached.

Criminal Trial Cases That Ended in Acquittal

 OJ Simpson

Over the decades, many people in the United States have been accused of serious crimes, gone to criminal trial and acquitted. One of the most famous in the last 50 years was the case of OJ Simpson. The retired NFL football star was charged with two counts of first degree murder after the stabbing deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. The trial was eight months long, beginning in November 1994, and ended in October 1995, with an acquittal.

In the state case, the defense attorney Johnnie Cochran was successful in instilling reasonable doubt in the jury’s mind about the reliability of DNA evidence that was submitted by the city police, as well as other issues with the evidence.

However, because the acquittal did not proof Simpson’s innocence, he was later sued for $40 million by the Goldman family in civil court for causing the death of Ron Goldman. In this case, the jury found a preponderance of the evidence made it more likely than not that Simpson killed Goldman.

Casey Anthony

Casey Anthony was accused of murdering her two year old daughter in 2008. She was charged in Florida with capital murder, child abuse, manslaughter and four counts of lying to law enforcement. In a trial that started in May and ended in July 2011, Anthony was acquitted on all charges except for providing false information to law enforcement.

George Zimmerman

George Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch captain in his neighborhood in Florida. He was accused of killing 17 year old Trayvon Martin in February 2012. He was charged with second degree murder and was tried in June and July of 2013. For jurors to convict him of second degree murder or manslaughter, the state prosecutor had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the man had killed out of hatred, spite or evil intent. Zimmerman was found not guilty and acquitted.

Kate Steinle

Kate Steinle, 32 years old, allegedly was intentionally shot by Jose, Ines, Garcia Zarate, 45, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who lived in San Francisco. Prosecutors argued Zarate shot Steinle with a .40 pistol as she and her father were walking along a pier in San Francisco. But Zarate’s defense argued the shooting was an accident and the bullet bounced off the ground and accidently struck Steinle.

The jury on the case acquitted Zarate of murder, involuntary manslaughter and assault with a deadly weapon. However, the jury did convict him for being a felon possessing a firearm.