Justices Rule for Ohio in Mental Impairment Case

     (CN) – The double-jeopardy clause does not bar Ohio courts from reconsidering the mental impairment of an Ohio man who was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering a 10-year-old boy in 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

     A jury convicted Michael Bies of kidnapping, attempted rape and murder. A psychiatrist told jurors that Bies didn’t qualify to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, because he knew the difference between right and wrong when he committed the crime. However, she said Bies was “mildly mentally retarded to borderline mentally retarded” and had an IQ in the 65-75 range.
     The jurors weighed Bies’ mental impairment as a mitigating factor, but were ultimately persuaded to recommend capital punishment by the aggravating factors, particularly the brutality of the murder.
     The trial court imposed the death sentence, which the state appeals court and high court each reviewed independently and affirmed.
     After failing to obtain post-conviction relief, Bies filed a habeas petition in federal court. While it was pending, the U.S. Supreme Court issued Atkins v. Virginia, which prohibited the execution of mentally impaired offenders as a violation of their constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
     Bies used the Atkins ruling to argue for a lighter sentence. He said the court record establishes that he’s mentally impaired, so the state is “precluded and estopped” from disputing it.
     The state court ordered a full hearing on the Atkins claim, but before it took place, Bies brought his claims directly to the federal court. The district court vacated his death sentence, and the 6th Circuit affirmed.
     After hearing arguments from both sides, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed the district court and the 6th Circuit’s decisions. Justice Ginsburg said they “fundamentally misperceived the application of the Double Jeopardy Clause and its issue preclusion (collateral estoppel) component.”
     Ginsburg explained that Bies was never tried twice for the same crime; he only received one death sentence.
     She then rejected Bies’ claim that issue preclusion prevents the state from disputing his mental retardation in the discussion on whether to apply Atkins.
     Issue preclusion is a plea reserved for the prevailing party, Ginsburg noted.
     “Issue preclusion, in short, does not transform final judgment losers, in civil or criminal proceedings, into partially prevailing parties,” the justice wrote.
     The justices unanimously overturned the decision to vacate Bies’ death sentence in light of the Atkins ruling.
     Monday’s ruling allows the state to argue that Bies is not mentally retarded, and thus ineligible for life in prison.

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