Guest Post: The Double Jeopardy Bar Should Not Apply When Acquittals Are Tainted By Corruption

Federico Morgenstern (fedemorg@gmail.com), Prosecretario in the Federal Criminal Chamber of Appeals in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributes the following guest post:

All around the world, a culture of impunity impedes the effective criminal prosecution of corruption cases, particularly of senior government officials and their close associates. Due to the interference of power political actors, judges and prosecutors often do not pursue these cases promptly or properly. Although there has been some attention – including on this blog – to concerns about prosecutors dropping or shelving cases, there is a closely related problem that is even more difficult, and that has received much less attention: fraudulently obtained acquittals, or contaminated absolutions.

Unfortunately, corruption cases in which powerful politicians are acquitted without a real and thorough investigation by independent prosecutors and judges are very common. And these corrupt acquittals are even more pernicious than prosecutorial decisions to shelve an investigation because the double jeopardy rule (also known as cosa juzgada or ne bis in idem) forbids the government to try the same defendant again on the same (or similar) charges following an acquittal. Thus, even following a change of government—which might lead prosecutors and judges to “strategically defect” against the corrupt old regime, or might simply produce a new set of the prosecutors and judges who are more willing to go after corrupt former officials—a prior acquittal would shield those corrupt actors from having to answer for their crimes.

Somewhat surprisingly, both the legal academy and the anticorruption community have largely ignored the double jeopardy doctrine’s implications for anticorruption efforts. But, as Guillermo Orce and I argue in our recent book, Cosa Juzgada Fraudulenta. Dos Ensayos Sobre la Llamada Cosa Juzgada Irrita (Abeledo-Perrot), there are compelling arguments for limiting the scope of the double jeopardy principle, in particular by allowing—under certain circumstances—the reopening of “contaminated” acquittals (cosa juzgada fraudulenta or cosa juzgada irrita): cases in which an acquittal is tainted by fraud, political interference, or clear disregard for the evidence. The core of the argument is as follows: Continue reading