Death-Row Inmate Loses High Court Fight Over Mitigating Evidence

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Tuesday against a convicted killer who argued that he might have avoided death row if allowed to tell jurors about the difficult circumstances of his childhood.

James McKinney was sentenced to death for a pair of murders he committed with his half-brother during a string of robberies in 1991. At the time, Arizona juries determined guilt or innocence only, leaving it to judges then to determine whether a defendant should be sentenced to death.

James McKinney, along with his half-brother, Charles Hedlund, was convicted of killing of a 65-year-old man during one burglary and a 40-year-old woman during another burglary, both in Chandler, Arizona, in 1991. (Image via Arizona Department of Corrections)

In the penalty phase for McKinney, the judge heard evidence that an abusive childhood resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder. McKinney said his mother routinely took him and his two sisters on the run from their alcoholic father, who inevitably tracked them down and dragged them back home.

As McKinney’s father told it, however, McKinney’s mother was locking the children in closets. He got custody of the children after he remarried, but the conditions in the new home hardly improved, with McKinney’s stepmother delivering regular beatings and bringing home strange animals.

Left to fend for himself, McKinney said he and his siblings were often covered in bruises and welts and wore clothes stained with urine.

McKinney fled to his aunt’s house at age 11, but turned to drugs and alcohol after spending time in juvenile detention and dropped out of school in seventh grade.

The judge accepted McKinney’s diagnosis of PTSD but determined under Arizona law he could not consider it as mitigating evidence because it was not sufficiently connected to the crime.

McKinney did prevail, however, before the Ninth Circuit, which found that judges in Arizona had for 15 years violated the mandate in the 1982 Supreme Court case Eddings v. Oklahoma that they consider mitigating evidence in capital cases.

Ultimately the Arizona Supreme Court upheld the death sentence, opting to conduct its own review of McKinney’s case instead of sending the case back to the trial court for resentencing.

McKinney argued at the Supreme Court that he was entitled to make his claims to a jury, but Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the majority Tuesday that the argument “does not square” with Clemons v. Mississippi. 

The high court held in Clemons that state appeals courts may reweigh mitigating and aggravating circumstances on their own when considering whether to uphold a death sentence.

“The court’s precedents establish that state appellate courts may conduct a Clemons reweighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and may do so in collateral proceedings as appropriate and provided under state law,” Kavanaugh wrote, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts as well asJustices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch.

McKinney had also argued he was entitled to resentencing before a jury based on the Supreme Court’s decisions in Ring v. Arizona and Hurst v. Florida, which together require juries, rather than judges, to make the factual findings necessary to impose the death penalty.

But Kavanaugh said those cases did nothing to overrule Clemons and do not require juries to weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances when reaching their decisions.

The Trump appointee also pointed out McKinney’s case became final before either Ring or Hurst came down. Neither case applies retroactively to cases on collateral review, which Kavanaugh ruled is the posture of McKinney’s case.

He rejected McKinney’s arguments that, by reweighing the aggravating and mitigating circumstances in his case, the Arizona court had reopened the proceedings on direct review.

This is where the liberal wing of the court split from the majority. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, wrote that the Arizona Supreme Court’s proceedings were “essentially a replay of the initial direct review proceeding,” and that the precedents therefore have retroactive reach for McKinney.

“Renewal of direct review cannot sensibly be characterized as anything other than direct review,” Ginsburg wrote. “The Arizona Supreme Court’s 2018 proceeding retread ground traversed in 1996; the two proceedings differed only in that the court’s 2018 review was free of Eddings error. If, as the state does not contest, the court’s 1996 review ranked as review direct in character, so, too, did its 2018 do-over.”

McKinney is represented by Neal Katyal, but the attorney at Hogan Lovells did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich praised the decision on Tuesday.

“Today the Supreme Court supported the administration of justice,” Brnovich said in a statement. “We have an obligation to the victims, their families and our communities to uphold the rule of law and to see that death sentences of convicted murderers are carried out.”

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