High Court to Clarify Appeals Standard in Death-Penalty Cases

(CN) – The Supreme Court said Monday it will hear a convicted double murderer’s appeal of his death sentence and decide whether Arizona’s high court should have applied current law when reviewing mitigating and aggravating evidence in the decades-old case.

In 1991, James McKinney and his older half-brother committed two burglaries, and in each crime one of the brothers killed a victim with a gunshot wound to the back of the head.

Although the brothers dispute who pulled the trigger in each crime, separate juries found McKinney guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, and convicted his brother of one count each of first- and second-degree murder.

A trial judge sent McKinney to death row in 1993, a ruling upheld by the Arizona Supreme Court three years later.

The state’s highest court refused to consider evidence of McKinney’s severely abusive upbringing because it found no “causal nexus” between his trauma and his crimes. The court practiced its so-called “causal nexus” test for capital crimes for 16 years before abandoning it in 2005.

After a Ninth Circuit panel initially rejected his habeas petition, a 6-5 majority of the en banc appeals court found in 2015 that the Arizona Supreme Court’s refusal to hear mitigating evidence before imposing the death penalty violated the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Eddings v. Oklahoma, which found that a trial court in another case should have considered evidence of a defendant’s difficult childhood and emotional disturbance.

The majority ordered the district court to grant McKinney’s habeas petition unless Arizona reduced his sentence or allowed him to submit mitigating evidence at another hearing.

The state challenged the ruling, and the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed McKinney’s death sentence. It held that U.S. Supreme Court decisions requiring juries rather than judges to make findings necessary to support the death penalty did not apply to McKinney’s case because they were issued after 1996, when his conviction became final.

In a petition for a writ of certiorari to the nation’s highest court, McKinney urged the justices to resolve the “clear division in authority, which similarly impacts a substantial number of death-row inmates in Arizona, and which has significant implications for other capital cases across the country.”

“By refusing to remand McKinney’s case for resentencing, the Arizona Supreme Court created a clear split with five other state and federal courts, which have each held that resentencing is required to correct Eddings errors,” the petition states.

The Supreme Court decided Monday to add the case to its docket for the next term. Per their custom, the justices did not comment on the decision to take up the case.

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