SCOTUS Opinion: Court Permits Appellate Review of Added Mitigating Factor in Death Penalty Case

After James McKinney was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder, the trial court sentenced him to death upon the finding that he had two aggravating circumstances for each such murder. Twenty years later, a narrowly divided en banc Ninth Circuit reversed upon habeas review, holding that the state courts had not properly considered McKinney’s post-traumatic stress disorder as a mitigating circumstance as required under Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104 (1982). On remand, the Arizona Supreme Court weighed the aggravating and mitigating factors under Clemons v. Mississippi, 494 U.S. 738 (1990), and upheld the death sentences. McKinney appealed, arguing that he should have been re-sentenced by a jury, in particular relying on Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002), which held that a jury must find the aggravating circumstance that makes a defendant eligible for the death penalty. The Court, in a 5-4 decision by Justice Kavanaugh, affirmed, holding that the rule of Clemons applied for review of an Eddings error, even though this case involved the adding of a mitigating factor as opposed to the removal of an aggravating factor. The Court also held that Ring did not require the reweighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances by a jury, and Ring did not apply because McKinney’s case was being considered on collateral, not direct, review. Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, dissented, arguing that McKinney’s case was on direct, not collateral, review, and thus Ring should have applied to require jury re-sentencing.

A link to the opinion in McKinney v. Arizona is here.