Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Can an Accomplice be Prosecuted for "Aiding & Abetting" if the Principal is Acquitted?

YES. In Texas, "collateral estoppel" does not bar an accomplice's trial. Simply put, "collateral estoppel" means that when an issue of ultimate fact has once been determined by a valid and final judgment, that issue cannot again be litigated by the same parties in any future lawsuit arising from the same event or condition. In the criminal arena, collateral estoppel is embodied within the double-jeopardy clause of the 5th Amendment and only concerns the relitigation of specific factual determinations between the same parties.

When multiple actors (a principal and his accomplices) are tried in separate trials for the same offense(s), double jeopardy and collateral estoppel are not implicated. This is primarily because the parties to each case are different. While it seems illogical that the law allows an accomplice to stand trial after a jury has acquitted the principal actor, it can (and does) happen. I mean, how can someone be prosecuted for aiding and abetting a person who is found "not guilty" of the ultimate crime? A silly question is seems. Here's what the 8th District Court of Appeals (El Paso) recently put together on the subject:

Does Collateral Estoppel Bar Accomplice's Trial?
Standefer v. United States, 447 U.S. 10, 100 S.Ct. 1999, 64 L.Ed.2d 689 (1980), is the controlling case on whether an accomplice may be tried for the same offense after the principal was acquitted. In that case, Standefer was accused of aiding and abetting a revenue official in accepting compensation beyond that authorized by law. Id. at 11-12. After the revenue official was acquitted of accepting unlawful payments, Standefer moved to dismiss the charges, arguing, on principles of collateral estoppel, that because the principal was acquitted, he could not be convicted of aiding and abetting that principal. Id. at 13. In rejecting this argument, the Supreme Court traced the origins of aiding and abetting, and found that there was "a clear intent to permit the conviction of accessories to federal criminal offenses despite the prior acquittal of the actual perpetrator of the offense." Id. at 19. The Court further noted that collateral estoppel would not bar the accomplice's trial because through lenity, compromise, or mistake the jury might have reached an irrational result in the prior trial, which was not subject to review at the government's instigation. Id. at 21-23. Although "symmetry of results may be intellectually satisfying, it is not required;" thus, the acquittal of a principal does not bar the conviction of an accomplice. Id. at 25.
The Court of Criminal Appeals likewise rejected a similar complaint in Ex parte Thompson, 179 S.W.3d 549 (Tex. Crim. App. 2005). There, Thompson contended that he was factually innocent of capital murder when a different jury found the principal guilty of only felony murder. Id. at 551-52. In rejecting the argument, the Court noted that it "is well-established that one accomplice may be found guilty of a different, more serious offense than other accomplices," and that the acquittal of the principal does not prevent conviction of his accomplice, regardless of whether the acquittal of the principal occurs before or after the accomplice's trial. Id. at 553-54.

See full text of State v. Cotto, (29 Jan 2010) HERE.