(CN) – As some 6th Circuit judges had predicted, the Supreme Court on Monday reinstated the death penalty for an Ohio inmate convicted of drunkenly shooting a black man, whom he also insulted in a racist tirade, and then killing a police sergeant in an ensuing shootout that also left a lieutenant and officer wounded.
In September 2010, a panel of the Cincinnati-based federal appeals court vacated the death sentence that a jury had imposed on Harry Mitts for the 1994 murders. A federal judge in Cleveland had previously affirmed the sentence, as had the Ohio Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court.
After receiving petitions for an en banc rehearing, the 6th Circuit declined, but several judges seemed to disagree with the original panel’s findings in concurring opinions.
“With all respect to the panel majority, this case was not decided correctly,” Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote in an opinion that Judge Raymond Kethledge also signed. Judge Gilbert Stroud Merritt agreed with his colleagues’ sentiment in a separate concurring opinion.
Sutton said the case did not warrant a full-court review since the judges on the panel were mostly unanimous, and since such review should be reserved for extraordinary cases.
“Sometimes there is nothing wrong with letting the United States Supreme Court decide whether a decision is correct and, if not, whether it is worthy of correction,” Sutton wrote.
The high court took the bait and Sutton’s lead, agreeing that Mitts had not been prejudiced by inadequate jury instructions that violated a previous holding in Beck v. Alabama.
“The instructions here are surely not invalid under our decision in Beck,” the unsigned six-page decision states. “The concern addressed in Beck was ‘the risk of an unwarranted conviction‘ created when the jury is forced to choose between finding the defendant guilty of a capital offense and declaring him innocent of any wrongdoing.” (Emphasis in original.)
“The question here, however, concerns the penalty phase, not the guilt phase, and we have already concluded that the logic of Beck is not directly applicable to penalty phase proceedings,” the ruling continues.”
Since the jurors had just convicted Mitts of two counts of aggravated murder and two counts of attempted murder, they clearly knew that Mitts would have been released if they did not enforce the death penalty.
“There is accordingly no reason to believe that the jurors in this case, unlike the jurors in Beck, could have been improperly influenced by a fear that a decision short of death would have resulted in Mitts walking free,” the justices wrote.