The Washington Supreme Court recently issued an important criminal law decision which will free a man who has been in prison since 2006, based on the "bedrock" constitutional principle of double jeopardy.
Mathew Moi was tried for murder in 2006. The prosecution theory was that he shot the victim. No physical evidence tied him to the gun. He was also charged with illegal possession of the same firearm the prosecution contended was the murder weapon. His lawyer moved for a separate trial on the gun charge because part of the proof of the firearm charge was that Moi had been convicted, while a juvenile, of a felony robbery. The State opposed severance of the two counts, and suggested that Moi could have a bench trial (non-jury trial) on the firearm charge which would reduce the possibility of the jury being prejudiced by the juvenile robbery conviction. The trial court agreed to this procedure.
The first trial ended in a hung jury on the homicide count, but the trial judge found Moi not guilty of the illegal possession of the firearm, which the prosecution contended was the murder weapon.
A retrial of the murder charge led to a conviction, which was affirmed on direct appeal. Moi filed a pro se (without counsel) personal restraint petition (PRP) and raised, among other issues, the argument that his acquittal on the firearm possession charge raised the bar of double jeopardy to the murder conviction. After losing in the Court of Appeals on this issue, he sought review by the Washington Supreme Court, which was granted. The court also appointed counsel for Moi.
The court held that the murder conviction was barred by the double jeopardy clause. The court reached this conclusion by utilizing the related principle of collateral estoppel. Having lost the issue of whether Moi unlawfully possessed the murder weapon, the State was estopped (prevented) from arguing he had committed the murder using that same weapon. The court rejected several arguments by the state that it would be unjust to apply collateral estoppel to these facts.
As a result of the decision, Moi, who has been in prison since 2006, should be released soon. The decision can be found at the court's website at: