WASHINGTONÂ â€“ The Supreme Court appeared divided Wednesday on whether an Arizona man convicted of two brutal murders nearly three decades ago deserves a new sentencing hearing, a ruling that 15 states warn could affect death-row prisoners elsewhere.
The justices heard arguments that James McKinney, who killed two people in separate incidents in 1991, suffered from severe abuse as a child that was not considered when he was sentenced to die â€“ and only reconsidered at the appellate court level.Â
The justices also debated whether McKinney now deserves to be sentenced by a jury, rather than a judge, as was the case in 1993. The Supreme Court ruled in an Arizona case in 2002 that juries must make the findings that help determine life or death sentences. While that ruling didÂ not apply retroactively, a new trial court proceeding might give McKinney that chance.
Depending on how the court rulesÂ â€“Â most likely next spring â€“Â the decision could affect existing death sentences elsewhere, a coalition of 15 states argued. They are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah.Â
McKinney and his half-brother,Â Charles Hedlund, wereÂ sentenced to death by aÂ Maricopa County Superior Court judge for the murders of Chandler residentsÂ Christene Mertens, 41, and Jim McClain, 65, during a 1991 burglary spree.
Mertens was home alone when the two broke in,Â beat and stabbed her and then shot her in the back of the head. They took $120.
McClain was asleep at his house when they broke in and shot him in the back of the head. They took his watch, three handguns and his car, according to records.Â
The case raises two different issues: whether Arizona violated the Constitution for years by not considering all mitigating circumstances in capital cases, and whether any new sentencing hearing should involve a jury, as is now required.Â
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned Hedlund’s sentence after his attorneys argued that a history of childhood abuse, alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, a low IQ and other factors mitigated against imposition of the death penalty.
In McKinney’s case, the appeals court similarly ruled that his sentence violated high court precedents. But when the case was sent back to the Arizona Supreme Court, it decided in 2018 to uphold the death sentence.Â
Neal Katyal, the former U.S. acting solicitor general representing McKinney, told the justices that weighing aggravating and mitigating circumstances at the trial court level, not an appeals court, represents “the heart of what capital punishment sentencing is all about.”
The court’s liberal justices seemed to agree. But several conservative justices wondered if McKinney deserves such a reward for the state court’s error in not considering mitigating circumstances it deemed unconnected to the crimes, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).Â
Associate Justice Samuel Alito said McKinney was seeking “a double windfall”Â â€“ a new shot at avoiding the death penaltyÂ and a jury trial.Â
In a statement Wednesday, ArizonaÂ Attorney General Mark Brnovich called it “another attempt by a convicted killer to delay accepting responsibility for his heinous crimes. We must remember the victims and their families. Justice delayed is justice denied.”
After an hour’s debate in court, it appeared possible the justicesÂ could rule McKinney deserves a new trial court sentencing to assess mitigating factors such as his childhood abuse, but not before a jury.
SaidÂ Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh: “Why go back to a jury resentencing 28 years later?”
Contributing: Lauren Castle, Arizona Republic
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