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Supreme Court to decide double jeopardy claim in murder case

Symbol of law and justice in the empty courtroom, law and justice concept.

Symbol of law and justice in the empty courtroom, law and justice concept.

The state, and attorneys for a convicted murderer, will argue before the Arizona Supreme Court whether his conviction of first-degree murder on a retrial violates the Double Jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment.

The case, State of Arizona v. Philip John Martin, will head to the state’s highest court on May 9 for oral arguments.

Martin was charged with first-degree murder, but a jury in 2013 could not reach a verdict on that charge, so instead convicted him on the lesser charge of second-degree murder for fatally shooting his neighbor, Steve Schwartz, with a shotgun while Schwartz was walking up Martin’s driveway in Golden Valley.

Martin appealed the conviction and the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled in his favor and sent the case back for a retrial.

A Mohave County Superior Court judge granted the state’s motion to retry Martin for first-degree murder over his double jeopardy objection that he should only be tried on a charge of second-degree murder.

A first-degree murder charge provides for a minimum of 25 years to life, and a second-degree charge faces a minimum of 10 years to 25. When Martin was originally convicted on second-degree murder, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

That’s where things get murky. When he was retried in June of 2016, the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, thus modifying his sentence to natural life in prison. Martin again took his case to the Court of Appeals; this time for double jeopardy. But the state argues that because Martin was never convicted of first-degree murder and he was never acquitted on those charges either, this would not be a matter of double jeopardy.

A three-judge panel of the Arizona Court of Appeals in 2018 affirmed the conviction. Judge James Beene, who was recently appointed to the Supreme Court and will be sworn in June 17, wrote the opinion for the Court of Appeals.

Martin’s attorney, Jill Evans, said the question before the Supreme Court is whether “the prosecution (was) barred by double jeopardy from retrying Appellant for first degree murder after a conviction of second degree murder in a prior trial?”

The appellant argues the double jeopardy principles set forth in two cases – Green v. United States and Price v. Georgia – support a double jeopardy bar.

The state argues that after the Green and Price rulings, the Supreme Court clarified “the failure of the jury to reach a verdict is not an event which terminates jeopardy,” so since there was no conviction or acquittal on first-degree murder in the first trial, there is no double jeopardy now.

Martin confessed to the murder immediately after the shooting and at his trial in 2013, but claimed it was in self-defense after noticing a bulge in Schwartz’s pocket that Martin thought was a gun. Schwartz had left his weapon in his truck when going to confront Martin about routinely placing railroad ties and other debris on the road in front of his house. Schwartz, who had just removed a railroad tie from his truck, told a friend he would go ask Martin “why he keeps throwing stuff across the road,” according to court documents.

The friend said he saw a muzzle blast from the front window and saw Schwartz fall to the ground. Martin claimed he fired a warning shot first, but witnesses disputed that claim. When Martin admitted to shooting Schwartz, he told the officer that Schwartz ignored his demands to get off his property.

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