I haven’t been at all following the investigation of the killing of Robert Wone, and the trial of Joseph Price, Victor Zaborsky, and Dylan Ward for allegedly obstructing justice in the investigation. But reader Ellen Fredel raised an interesting legal question: The trial judge — the case was tried without a jury — made detailed findings about what she thought happened; she concluded that the government didn’t prove the defendants’ guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but made various conclusions about specific facts in the case. Wone’s widow is now suing the defendants for wrongful death and on other theories. Would the findings made by the judge in the criminal case have collateral estoppel effect in the civil case, which means that they would be conclusively presumed to be sound, wouldn’t have to be reproven by the plaintiff, and couldn’t be rebutted by the defendants? (Collateral estoppel is also often called “issue preclusion.”)
Generally speaking, criminal judgments can have collateral estoppel effect in civil cases. If Don kills Vic, and is found guilty of murder, then that finding would be viewed as conclusive in a civil wrongful death case brought by Don’s widow Paula (assuming that the elements of the tort are suitably related to the elements of the crime). The theory is that a court has found, in a trial where Don participated, that Don killed Vic; there’s no need for a future court to decide this again. And since Don was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, then a fortiori he’s guilty by a preponderance of the evidence, the standard of proof required in the civil case (and by clear and convincing evidence, if that’s the standard of proof required in the punitive damages phase).
But would the judge’s specific conclusions in this case have such effect? I’m not an expert on collateral estoppel law, but my tentative sense is that they wouldn’t. Judgments have collateral estoppel effect, and so do the facts necessarily found as part of the judgment. But I don’t think that judges in criminal cases have the power to render judgments about what likely happened; they only have the power to render judgments about what was proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Moreover, since in this case the judge apparently wasn’t asked to make specific findings, but just decided to make them on her own, I don’t think that there’d be any collateral estoppel effect even for those facts that could be said to have been found beyond a reasonable doubt.
The statements in the judge’s opinion might be interesting and enlightening for the public, but they aren’t part of the judgment, and thus have no preclusive effect. The defendants retain the right to fully relitigate these questions in the civil trial.
But that’s just my tentative sense of the matter; I’d love to hear from people who know more about this subject. Incidentally, note that there is no collateral estoppel effect against the defendant in criminal cases (as opposed to of criminal cases). Criminal defendants are entitled to have the particular jury that is trying them decide the facts anew, without any preclusive effect given to judgments by a previous jury. (And of course any judgments by a previous civil jury couldn’t have preclusive effect against a criminal defendant in any event, since the civil jury’s findings were merely by a preponderance of the evidence, not beyond a reasonable doubt.) But criminal acquittals do have collateral estoppel effect against the government in criminal cases, so that the government may be precluded from arguing a particular factual theory in a later prosecution if it had necessarily been rejected by a jury in an earlier prosecution; the Double Jeopardy Clause has been interpreted as requiring that past verdicts have such effect.