Ricketts v. Adamson

483 U. S. 1

June 22, 1987

In exchange for testifying against two co-defendants in a car bombing case, Adamson would be spared the death penalty. This understanding was formalized in a plea agreement. If Adamson ever refused to testify though, the the agreement would be voided, and he could be tried again. When the convictions of the co-defendants were reversed on appeal, Adamson was asked to testify at a retrial. Adamson stated his belief that testimony at retrial was not covered by the agreement. Nonetheless, the State of Arizona deemed Adamson in breach of the agreement. Accordingly, Adamson himself was retried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. He appealed on double jeopardy grounds.

The Court ruled 5-4 that double jeopardy did not pose a barrier to his new conviction. Justice White explained that the double jeopardy privilege could be waived in a plea agreement, and that Adamson’s plea agreement did just that. The lack of an explicit waiver provision was of no consequence, because the agreement own terms unequivocally presumed waiver. White was unsympathetic to the claim that Adamson believed he had not breached. Breach of plea agreements was a question for courts to decide, and White was loath to second guess the findings of the Arizona courts.

Brennan dissented, and was joined by Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens. He hotly contended that the state had treated Adamson with gross unfairness. Adamson’s interpretation of the plea agreement was in fact quite reasonable textually – and one could argue that he was attempting to see the agreement honored rather than breached by adhering to his interpretation. More than that, even accepting Arizona’s construction of the agreement, Adamson still never breached it. At best, he had merely stated an intention to breach it. While double jeopardy could be waived by agreement, Brennan thought it could not be waived without intent, and Adamson clearly never intended through any of his actions to actually void the agreement. Adamson’s retrial was all the more unfair because the prosecutors decided to drop the retrial of his co-defendants right after the alleged breach.

This decision is a poignant example of what famed legal scholar John Hart Ely once called “The Wages of Crying Wolf.” Brennan and Marshall dissent so automatically in capital punishment cases that one might forgive the five more conservative Justices for ignoring their whines of unfairness in any given case. The problem is, Ricketts v. Adamson was one of those rare instance where the liberal cry of “Wolf!” should have been taken seriously. Adamson was flat out screwed by the prosecution, and one of the Justices from the majority should have been able to realize it. Why is it instead cases like Booth or Cruz where a conservative Justice defects?


One thought on “Ricketts v. Adamson

  1. Pingback: 1986-1987: Conservative Victories | Vintage Bracketology

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