Nonmutual Collateral Estoppel Does Not Apply to Verdicts in Criminal Cases

By: Wallin & Klarich

The California Supreme Court has overruled a 35-year-old court precedent that allowed defendants in criminal trials to assert nonmutual collateral estoppel. (People v. Sparks, Feb. 8, 2010, No. S164614.) The high court ruled that a verdict regarding one defendant has no effect on the trial of a different defendant because courts should determine the propriety of a prosecution based on that prosecution’s own record, not a different record from another criminal case.

In Sparks, the defendant was charged with two felony murders. Before his case came to trial, two other persons were tried for the same murders. One was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, and the other was acquitted. Applying the doctrine of nonmutual collateral estoppel, the trial court determined that those two earlier verdicts did not allow the prosecution to try the defendant for a crime greater than voluntary manslaughter.

The Supreme Court disagreed and effectively overruled its previous decision authorizing the use of collateral estoppel in criminal cases. Nonmutual collateral estoppel provided a defendant with the benefit of a favorable verdict in a previously tried case stemming from the same facts of the defendant’s case, but involving a different person.

The court’s decision has far-reaching implications. Now, a defendant accused of aiding and abetting in the commission of an offense may be convicted after the principal has been acquitted of that offense. Similarly, the defendant in Sparks can be convicted of two felony murders and sentenced to death, when one of the other two co-defendants was acquitted, and the other was found guilty of a less serious crime of involuntary manslaughter.

It is essential to contact an experienced California criminal appeals attorney who can provide clarity and quality representation in your criminal case. At Wallin & Klarich, our attorneys have over 30 years of experience in handling criminal matters, including criminal appeals. Our attorneys are experts in the constantly changing laws. This allows our clients to get the representation they deserve. Contact the experienced Southern California criminal defense attorneys at Wallin & Klarich today at (888) 280-6839 or visit us on our website at We will be there when you call.

Posted In: Criminal Appeals