A Will County, Illinois man whose conviction on charges of predatory sexual assault was overturned by the Illinois Appellate Court, lost on his bid to have the re-trial on those same charges dismissed due to concerns that the prosecution violated his right against double jeopardy.
Double Jeopardy in Illinois Sexual Assault Case
In People v. Ventsias, the defendant was convicted of one count of predatory sexual assault of a child and sentenced to 11 years in prison; he was acquitted on one count of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. The Illinois Appellate Court reversed the conviction due to a finding of juror bias, and ordered the defendant to stand trial again on the predatory sexual assault charge only.
Prior to the start of the new trial in 2012, the defendant agreed to a plea agreement whereby he would plead guilty to the charge of aggravated criminal sexual abuse – the charge which the jury had initially acquitted him of committing – in exchange for the prosecution not pursuing the predatory sexual assault charge.
Following the defendant’s entry of the guilty plea, the prosecution moved to vacate the plea due to concerns raised by the trial court that the plea may have been invalid due to double jeopardy concerns. Namely, the court was not convinced that Ventsias could waive his right to plead guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse, since he had already been acquitted.
The prosecution then moved for a second trial on the charge of predatory sexual assault of a child. Ventsias objected and filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that double jeopardy attached due to the prosecution’s prior agreement to no longer pursue the charge.
When Double Jeopardy Attaches in Illinois Criminal Cases
In a previous blog I discussed a recent United States Supreme Court case, Martinez v. Illinois, in which the court ruled an Illinois defendant could not be retried because double jeopardy attached. In that case, the prosecution refused to participate in the trial, and the trial court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the dismissal, citing the long-held rule that “jeopardy attaches when the jury is sworn in.”
Like Martinez, the jury in People v. Ventsias was sworn in. Why, then, did double jeopardy not attach to Ventsias, when it did in Martinez?
Because there are exceptions to when double jeopardy attaches.
If the defendant’s conviction is overturned on appeal, the prosecution is generally free to re-prosecute the case. This is because, unless the reversal was due to insufficient evidence proving guilt, the reversal is usually due to some error made during the trial, whether the admission of inadmissible evidence or some other violation of criminal procedure that interfered with the defendant’s ability to obtain a fair trial. In these cases, although technically the defendant is being retried for the same crime, the first trial is considered null and void because the parties involved did not play by the rules.
In Ventsias, the defendant’s acquittal was overturned on appeal due to juror bias, and not because the appellate court found insufficient evidence of his guilt. So although the jury had been sworn in, double jeopardy did not attach.
Ventsias argued that double jeopardy attached when the prosecution agreed not to re-file the predatory criminal sexual assault charges. Therefore, even though the plea agreement was dismissed, according to Ventsias the prosecution could not re-try him for predatory criminal sexual assault.
The appellate court dismissed Ventsias argument, stating that the basis for the plea agreement was unconstitutional. According to the court, double jeopardy is a right so fundamental to our criminal justice system, that a defendant cannot waive it. Therefore, because his waiver was unconstitutional, the prosecution was not bound by its earlier agreement to not re-prosecute Ventsias for predatory criminal sexual assault.
It remains to be seen whether the defendant will appeal the court’s decision, and whether, if accepted, the Illinois Supreme Court would rule on whether a defendant can waive his right to double jeopardy.
Criminal laws are in place to protect the rights of the accused. While the state cannot infringe upon those rights, the defendant should have the right to waive them if, pursuant to his attorney’s advice, it is in his best interest to do so.
In this case, a conviction on a charge of aggravated sexual abuse carries a maximum prison term of seven years – four years less than what Ventsias had been sentenced to under the predatory sexual assault charge. So it was in Ventsias’ best interest to waive his double jeopardy protection and plead guilty to the lesser charge, even if he had already been acquitted. It does not seem right that the court can take that away from a defendant.
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