The trial of George Zimmerman may well mark the beginning of the end of the law relating to Double Jeopardy as enshrined in the 5th amendment to the US Constitution. It is the perfect case for the enemies of liberty, who have been waiting for the opportunity to overturn this ancient and “archaic” protection and it is also the perfect case to demonstrate why its protections are needed more than ever.
The purpose of the 5th Amendment is to protect against abuse of governmental authority in legal proceedings, and right in the middle of it we come across the following clause:
“Nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.”
I am writing this piece from Salisbury, England, and I currently sit not more than a mile away from one of four remaining copies of one of the most important documents in the world – Magna Carta. The language used in the 5th amendment– life or limb – is lifted directly from the Magna Carta, but though it is often assumed that the law relating to Double Jeopardy dates back to this document, signed in 1215, it is in fact even older than that, dating back to at least the time of the Norman Conquest in the 11th Century. It may even go back further still. Demosthenes, the Ancient Greek jurist, mentions the principle of ne bis in eadim, or ‘not twice for the same thing’, and how it prevented Athenian citizens from being tried twice for the same crime.
Some laws are pretty easy to grasp, while others need an awful lot more thinking about before we realise the point of them. Double Jeopardy very much fits into the latter category. The reason it sometimes appears to be problematic is that we can all think of examples where a prohibition on trying a man for the same crime twice can end up with a guilty man walking free. It could be that the judge or jury was partial. It could be that the prosecution counsel was inadequate. Or it could be that new evidence turns up years after the original trial which seems to point without any shadow of doubt to the acquitted man’s guilt. So why not try him again?
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