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US Supreme Court won’t hear Arizona death sentence case

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The U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to hear Arizona’s appeal of a lower court ruling that overturned a convicted murderer’s death sentence has opened the door for about 25 death row inmates to challenge their sentences.

The justices on Monday let stand the ruling that said Arizona unconstitutionally excluded evidence about James McKinney’s troubled childhood and post-traumatic stress disorder that might have led to a lesser punishment. McKinney was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 1993.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last December that Arizona’s causal nexus rule violated the Constitution. The rule required any mitigating evidence, such as mental illness or post-traumatic stress disorder, to be directly tied to the crime committed to be relevant in sentencing.

In the case of McKinney, that means a judge could have granted some leniency ai??i?? and perhaps avoided the death penalty ai??i?? had he been able to consider McKinney’s troubled past and abuse as a child. But McKinney’s abuse wasn’t directly correlated to the double murders he committed, so it wasn’t admissible as a mitigating factor in court. McKinney was sentenced to death in 1993, and the Arizona Supreme Court upheld the sentence three years later.

The causal nexus rule was applied in Arizona for about 15 years, but it hasn’t been used since 2005.

McKinney’s sentencing case will go back to state court within 90 to 120 days, Arizona Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman Mia Garcia said. His conviction stands.

Only a jury could re-sentence McKinney to death because Arizona can no longer allow judges to impose death sentences following a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. McKinney was originally sentenced to death by a judge.

Dale Baich, federal public defender in Arizona, says up to 25 death sentences could also be affected. Baich said it will take time for federal courts to sort out those cases and determine which ones will go back for new sentencing hearings.

Ivan Mathew, an attorney for McKinney, declined to comment on the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the state’s appeal, but he said he would be conveying the decision to his client. He said during arguments in the appeals court that the causal nexus rule amounted to a filter or screen that would not allow the full information to be meaningfully considered.

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One comment

  1. middlegroundprisonreform

    The defense bar in Arizona should be ashamed of itself for refusing to testify at the Legislature several years ago when the 25 to Life punishment was removed from the first degree murder statute, leaving only the possibility of natural life or death for a conviction of first degree murder. With this ruling, however, which allows the jury to be advised that natural life means absolutely no possibility of release on any basis — including ineligibility to apply for commutation of sentence — at least some defendants currently sentenced to death would be eligible for a new sentencing hearing. Unfortunately, those who have the potential for full redemption at some point in the distant future and whose crime falls under the conditions mentioned above, will still face natural life. It can safely be said, throwing out the baby with the bath water is never a good idea. The defense bar thought that there would be fewer death sentences if only natural life and death were the jury choices, but the majority of first degree murder cases did not qualify for capital punishment in the first place. There needs to be reinstatement of life with the possibility of release after 25 years as a possible punishment for some defendants convicted of first degree murder. Whether we like to admit it or not, there are very successful and contributing members of our community in Arizona who have been convicted of such crimes, served their sentences, and have returned to the community as fully law abiding, productive citizens whose redemption is based upon their life-long remorse and commitment to atonement.

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