The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against an Arizona death row prisoner in a case that his lawyer said could impact 20 prisoners in that state alone.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote Tuesday’s opinion rejecting James Erin McKinney’s resentencing request. Kavanaugh’s opinion was joined by the other four Republican appointees, with the four Democrat-appointed justices in dissent led by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Though the dueling opinions don’t contain the same vitriol seen in some recent capital litigation at the high court, this latest death penalty decision shows that the ultimate punishment continues to divide the justices.
McKinney, convicted of multiple murders in the early 1990s by an Arizona state court, had claimed he was entitled to a new sentencing proceeding with a jury. Courts failed to consider his post traumatic stress disorder as mitigating evidence, he said.
In 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in his favor, stating that under the Supreme Court’s 1982 decision in Eddings v. Oklahoma, Arizona’s courts had failed to properly consider the PTSD evidence.
But the Ninth Circuit’s decision sparked questions of what relief McKinney was entitled to, and in what forum—more specifically, whether he’s entitled to a new sentencing proceeding before a trial court and a jury, which would weigh anew whether aggravating and mitigating factors warrant a death sentence.
A judge weighed those factors in the 1990s, before the Supreme Court said in the following decade that defendants are entitled to juries for fact findings that enhance sentences. But that new rule only applies to cases on direct review—meaning the line of appeals taken directly following a conviction—as opposed to subsequent collateral review.
Following the Ninth Circuit ruling, Arizona’s top court rejected McKinney’s attempt to get back to the trial court for a new sentencing proceeding, instead weighing the factors on its own and finding his case doesn’t warrant leniency.
That raised the question, in turn, whether that state appeals court proceeding was collateral or direct.
State officials argued to the justices that no more is required than the appellate review McKinney has already received.
The Supreme Court majority agreed. It said that state appeals courts can reweigh aggravating and mitigating factors on collateral review when an Eddings error is found on collateral review.
Affirming the state court ruling against him, the majority rejected McKinney’s argument that the state court’s reweighing of the factors reopened direct review.
At the December oral argument, Kavanaugh told McKinney’s attorney, Neal Katyal, that his client wanted “a new jury sentencing 28 years after the murders and after the victims’ families have been through this for three decades.” Kavanaugh’s opinion began by laying out the facts of McKinney’s case, noting that his brutal murders took place during a month-long crime spree.
Writing for the four dissenters, Ginsburg said the state top court proceeding was “direct in character,” so McKinney should get a new sentencing in front of a jury.
The case is McKinney v. Arizona, U.S., No. 18-1109, decided 2/25/20.