June 18, 2013:
The Virginia Court of Appeals upheld the Louisa County Circuit Court’s conviction of appellant for malicious wounding and use of a firearm during a felony as the principal in the second degree. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision to disallow the acquittal order of the alleged principal in the second degree into evidence as a matter of law. Virginia continues to uphold English Common Law, where it has not been superseded by statute, which states that a principal in the second degree may be found guilty even if the principal in the first degree is not.
In the case at bar, appellant went to a party and got into an argument with the host. He was asked to leave twice, but refused. Instead appellant stated he would call his brother, and was heard repeating the phrase “click, click, boom.” After calling, appellant left to meet up with his brother. Approximately 30-45 minutes later, appellant and his brother returned to the party in a dark blue sedan. The victim approached the car to see who it was, at which point gunshots began coming from the driver’s side window, striking the victim two times. One witness placed appellant in the vehicle. Police later found the sedan at the appellant’s family home, and found a shell casing in the back seat that matched those found at the scene. The two accused parties requested separate trials, and the brother was acquitted. Appellant moved to admit the acquittal order into evidence, arguing if the principal in the first degree was not found guilty, then neither could he be found guilty. The trial court denied the motion, stating that his guilt or innocence must be determined by evidence at his trial alone.
The Court of Appeals stated that Virginia courts, in applying English Common Law, have historically held that the guilt of principals in the second degree must be determined on the facts of their case alone. They must not be swayed by decisions for or against any other parties to the crime. Further, the doctrine of collateral estoppel does not have the same application in criminal law as it does elsewhere. The State is not permitted to appeal an acquittal, which allows juries to acquit on the basis of compassion, compromise, or other varying reasons, provided that there is sufficient evidence to convict. As such, juries can, and do, return inconsistent verdicts, which in turn undermines equitable estoppel.
Under the Common Law principals, the acquittal of the brother in this case had no relevance to the judgment of appellant. Additionally, the differing outcomes may have been due to jury compassion, different tactics used by defense counsel, different impressions of witnesses, and so forth. Since estoppel does not bar juries from reaching different conclusions, it is thus inappropriate for appellant’s jury to be given the opinion of the other jury as to the ultimate outcome. As such, the Virginia Court of Appeals held that the Louisa County Circuit Court did not err in barring admission of the acquittal order into evidence.