death penalty

In McKinney v. Arizona James Erin McKinney wants the Arizona Supreme Court out of his death penalty case. More specifically, the Supreme Court will decide whether a jury rather than a judge must weigh the factors mitigating against imposing a death sentence when the law at the time he was convicted allowed a judge to weigh mitigating factors. The Court also has agreed to decide whether a trial court rather than an appellate court must correct the failure to weigh relevant mitigating factors.

A jury found McKinney guilty of first-degree murder related to two separate burglaries and murders committed in 1991. McKinney had PTSD from his “horrific” childhood but the Arizona Supreme Court disallowed the sentancer to consider non-statutory mitigating evidence (including family background and mental condition) unconnected to the crime. In 1996 the trial court found the evidence of PTSD to be unconnected to the crime and sentenced McKinney to death.

In an unauthored opinion in Moore v. Texas II the Supreme Court concluded Bobby James Moore has intellectual disability. In Atkins v. Virginia (2002) the Supreme Court held that persons with intellectual disability can’t be executed.

As the dissenting Justices point out, the Supreme Court typically opines whether a lower court has correctly applied as a standard and sends the case back to the lower court if it didn’t. The Supreme Court usually doesn’t apply the standard itself. It may have done so in this case because it previously held the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals failed to correctly apply the intellectual disability standard to Moore in Texas v. Moore (2017) (Moore I).

In a 5-3 decision in a capital case the Supreme Court rejected a Texas court’s reliance on a 1992 definition of intellectual disability and the use of a number of factors as indicators of intellectual disability which the Court described an “invention…untied to any acknowledged source.”

In Atkins v. Virginia (1992) the Supreme Court held that executing the intellectually disabled violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Court tasked states with implementing Atkins.

Generally, to be intellectually disabled for purposes of the death penalty a person must have an IQ of 70 or less (adjusted plus or minus five for the standard error of measurement) and “adaptive deficiencies” (an inability to learn basic skills and adjust behavior to changing circumstances) onset as a minor.

In Ake v. Oklahoma (1985) the Supreme Court held that if a criminal defendant’s mental health will be a significant factor at trial the state must ensure that the defendant has access to a “competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.”

The question the Supreme Court will decide in McWilliams v. Dunn is whether such an expert must be independent of the prosecution.

CSG Midwest
A U.S. circuit court has dismissed claims by several Ohio death-row inmates that a state law on capital punishment unconstitutionally conceals information from them. The November decision affirmed a lower court ruling that the prisoners had no standing because they couldn’t prove harm from the denial of information, The (Toledo) Blade reports.

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