(CN) – The Supreme Court on Monday ordered the Sixth Circuit to reconsider an Ohio man’s vacated death sentence and declined to hear an appeal from another convicted murderer, drawing a stinging rebuke from three liberal justices.
Danny Hill was convicted in 1986 of torturing, raping and murdering a 12-year-old boy a year earlier. He was sentenced to death and his punishment was affirmed by a state appeals court and the Ohio Supreme Court.
Hill filed a federal habeas petition claiming his death sentence is illegal under Atkins v. Virginia, a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment prevents the execution of a defendant who is intellectually disabled.
A federal judge denied the petition but the Sixth Circuit reversed and overturned Hill’s death sentence, prompting Ohio to appeal to the nation’s highest court.
The Sixth Circuit’s decision relied on Moore v. Texas, a 2017 decision in which the justices found that adjudications of intellectual disability must be based on accepted medical criteria.
In an unsigned opinion Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that the Cincinnati-based appeals court must reconsider its decision to vacate Hill’s death sentence because it should have relied on precedent that was in effect at the time his case was in state courts.
“No reader of the decision of the Court of Appeals can escape the conclusion that it is heavily based on Moore, which came years after the decisions of the Ohio courts,” the eight-page opinion states.
It concludes, “Because the reasoning of the Court of Appeals leans so heavily on Moore, its decision must be vacated. On remand, the court should determine whether its conclusions can be sustained based strictly on legal rules that were clearly established in the decisions of this Court at the relevant time.”
In another death penalty case, the high court decided Monday not to hear the appeal of Donnie Cleveland Lance, a Georgia man convicted of killing his ex-wife and her boyfriend in 1997.
The denial of review prompted a scathing dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.
Sotomayor said jurors deciding Lance’s punishment did not hear evidence about dementia, frontal lobe damage in his brain and a low IQ that places him in the “borderline range” for intellectual disability.
“The mental impairment evidence reasonably could have affected at least one juror’s assessment of whether Lance deserved to die for his crimes, and Lance should have been given a chance to make the case for his life,” the dissent states. “The Georgia Supreme Court’s conclusion that it would be futile to allow him to do so was unreasonable.”