Further Update: See Shea Denning’s post here about State v. Mumford, in which the court of appeals held that “logically inconsistent and legally contradictory” verdicts cannot stand. It has the potential to expand significantly the circumstances under which inconsistent verdicts are grounds for a new trial.
Update: One more type of inconsistent verdict is the situation where the jury is presented with two mutually exclusive offenses and convicts of both — as in State v. Melvin, where the jury convicted the defendant both of murder and of being an accessory after the fact to the same murder. As the opinion in Melvin indicates, this should be rare, since the jury should be instructed not to convict the defendant of both charges. But when it happens, it may be grounds for a new trial.
Original Post: Last month the court of appeals decided State v. Cole — discussed below in context — and ever since, I’ve been meaning to do a post on inconsistent verdicts.
The general rule in North Carolina is that inconsistent verdicts are permitted. State v. Reid, 335 N.C. 647 (1994). Although defendants sometimes argue that such verdicts show that the jury was irrational or confused, our appellate courts have held that inconsistent verdicts usually reflect a rational compromise within the jury, or even lenity, i.e., a partial acquittal despite sufficient evidence of guilt. Id. Further, the defendant “is afforded protection against jury irrationality or error by the independent review of the sufficiency of the evidence undertaken by the trial and appellate courts.” United States v. Powell, 469 U.S. 57 (1984).
There are two basic types of inconsistent verdicts, and the rule allowing inconsistent verdicts has been applied to both. First, some verdicts are not logically inconsistent, but are inconsistent in the sense that the same basic evidence supports conviction on multiple counts, yet the jury convicts on some and acquits on others. For example, in State v. Shaffer, __ N.C. App. __, 666 S.E.2d 856 (2008), the defendant was charged with rape and with sexual offense as a result of a prolonged sexual assault on the victim. Although the victim testified that she was forced into both vaginal intercourse and fellatio and the defendant presented no evidence, the jury convicted him of the sexual offense but acquitted him of the rape. Despite the incongruity of the result, the conviction was upheld on appeal.
The other type of inconsistent verdict includes verdicts that are logically inconsistent. For example, a defendant may be convicted under the theory of acting in concert despite the acquittal of the person with whom he was alleged to have acted in concert. Reid, supra. Likewise, a defendant may be convicted of assault with a deadly weapon despite being acquitted of possessing the weapon. State v. Cole, __ N.C. App. __, 2009 WL 2601835 (N.C. Ct. App. Aug. 18, 2009). And, he may be convicted of the sale of a controlled substance despite the jury’s failure to convict him of possessing the same substance with the intent to sell it. State v. Brown, 36 N.C. App. 152 (1978).
There are a couple of exceptions to the general rule. First, when “a charge of felony possession of stolen goods is based on the goods having been stolen pursuant to a breaking and entering a court cannot properly accept a guilty verdict on the charge of felony possession of stolen goods when defendant has been acquitted of the breaking and entering charge.” State v. Goblet, 173 N.C. App. 112 (2005). Second, although the law in this area has been somewhat confusing, it is now somewhat settled that “the acquittal of a named principal at a separate trial requires acquittal of one charged as an aider and abettor of that named principal.” State v. Byrd, 122 N.C. App. 497 (1996) (collecting cases and noting that the law is otherwise when both defendants are tried in a single proceeding).
If you know of other exceptions to the general rule that inconsistent verdicts are OK, please post a comment, or email me and I’ll post an update. Likewise, if you can think of a good way to reconcile the holding in Goblet with the general rule, please let me know. It strikes me as, well, inconsistent.