Justices Reinstate Ohio Man’s Death Sentence

(CN) – The Supreme Court on Monday reversed the Sixth Circuit’s decision to overturn an Ohio man’s death sentence, finding that the appeals court should not have considered his claim of faulty jury instructions.

Percy Hutton accused two friends, Derek Mitchell and Samuel Simmons Jr., of stealing a sewing machine that he had hidden $750 in.

On Sept. 16, 1985, Hutton lured them into his car and drove them around at gunpoint looking for the sewing machine.

“By night’s end, Hutton had recovered his sewing machine, Simmons was in the hospital with two gunshot wounds to the head, and Mitchell was nowhere to be found. Sim­mons survived, but Mitchell was found dead a few weeks later, also having been shot twice,” according to the U.S. Supreme Court’s per curiam ruling in the case.

An Ohio jury convicted Hutton of aggravated murder, attempted murder and kidnapping. It also recommended the death penalty, which the trial court accepted based on aggravating circumstances: the jury’s finding that Hutton attempted to kill both men and murdered Mitchell while committing kidnapping.

A state appeals court and the Ohio Supreme Court both affirmed Hutton’s death sentence, ruling that evidence supports the finding of aggravated circumstances.

Hutton argued that his due-process rights were violated during the penalty phase of his trial because jurors weren’t told that they could only consider the two aggra­vating factors they had found during the guilt phase.

The Sixth Circuit overturned his death sentence, concluding that the jury “had not made the necessary finding of the existence of aggravating circum­stances” and its death recommendation was not “based on a review of any valid aggravating circumstances.”

On Monday, the Supreme Court summarily reversed the Sixth Circuit’s decision, finding that the appeals court “was wrong to reach the merits of Hutton’s claim.”

The justices ruled that jurors in Hutton’s trial properly found the existence of aggravating circumstances during the guilt phase of trial, and that the Sixth Circuit didn’t consider whether a properly instructed jury could have recommended death.

“Neither Hutton nor the Sixth Circuit has ‘show[n] by clear and convincing evidence that’—if properly instructed—‘no reasonable juror would have’ concluded that the aggravating circumstances in Hutton’s case outweigh the mitigating circumstances,” the unsigned opinion states. “In fact, the trial court, Ohio Court of Appeals, and Ohio Supreme Court each independently weighed those factors and concluded that the death penalty was justified. On the facts of this case, the Sixth Circuit was wrong to hold that it could review Hutton’s claim under the miscarriage of justice exception to procedural default.”

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