(CN) – The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to weigh into the issue of which prior state court rulings a federal court should evaluate when deciding the merits of a condemned inmate’s appeal.
The case involves Marion Wilson Jr., a Georgia inmate, who, along with co-defendant Robert Earl Butts, was sentenced to death for the 1996 killing of state prison guard Donovan Parks.
The two men had approached Parks in a Milledgeville, Ga. Wal-Mart parking lot and asked him for a ride. Parks invited them into his car, but a short time later, they ordered him to pull over to the side of a residential street, where they killed him with a sawed-off shotgun blast to the head.
After a jury trial, Wilson was convicted of malice murder, felony murder, armed robbery, hijacking a motor vehicle, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime.
The jury later came back and sentenced him to death for the murder, finding as a statutory aggravating circumstance that Wilson killed Parks while engaged in the commission of an armed robbery.
The sentence was later affirmed by a Georgia superior court judge and the state Supreme Court.
Wilson appealed his sentence to the federal court in Atlanta, and after failing to have it overturned there, asked the 11th Circuit to intervene.
But that’s where things got complicated.
The appeals court had to decide which of two lower court rulings it would consider when deciding the merits of Wilson’s appeal: the short, summary opinion of the Georgia Supreme Court, or the far more detailed ruling handed down by the superior court judge.
Lawyers for Wilson and the state attorney general’s office both argued the panel they should give the most weight to the superior court ruling, which they said grew out of hearings and after the judge had reviewed the evidence and heard testimony in the case.
Rather than simply cede the point in the face of a unified defense and prosecution, the 11th Circuit took the unusual step of appointing Adam Mortara, a Chicago attorney who had not previously been involved in the case, to argue in favor of relying on the Supreme Court summary.
In Aug. 2016, a sharply divided 11th Circuit voted 6-5 in Mortara’s favor.
Writing for the majority, U.S. Circuit William Pryor Jr., who is also a commissioner on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, said that to contend the Supreme Court’s denial of Wilson’s appeal was not “an adjudication on the merits is to suggest that the elaborate procedures of the Georgia courts are a sham.”
“We refuse to endorse that suggestion,” Pryor said.
Wilson’s attorneys filed their petition for a writ of certiorari three months later.
As is its custom, the U.S. Supreme Court did not explain its rationale for taking up the case. However, the outcome of their decision could make it more difficult for death-row inmates to persuade federal appeals courts to overturn their capital sentences.
The justices also invited Mortara to brief and argue, as amicus curiae, in support of the 11th Circuit’s decision.