The NCSL Blog


By Lisa Soronen

In McKinney v. Arizona James Erin McKinney wants the Arizona Supreme Court out of his death penalty case.

Convicted murderer James Erin McKinneyMore 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 will also 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 sentencing judge 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 2015 the 9th Circuit held en banc that the Arizona Supreme Court’s "causal nexus” to the crime test for applying non-statutory mitigating factors violates Eddings v. Oklahoma (1982), which held that a sentencer in a death penalty case may not “refuse to consider, as a matter of law, any relevant mitigating evidence.”

The 9th Circuit ordered that McKinney be resentenced. The Arizona Supreme Court resentenced McKinney again to death after considering his family background and PTSD.

McKinney argues he should be resentenced by a jury instead of the Arizona Supreme Court because in Ring v. Arizona (2002) the Supreme Court held juries—rather than judges—“are required to make the findings necessary to impose the death penalty.”

The Arizona Supreme Court concluded Ring did not apply because McKinney’s conviction became final in 1996, prior to Ring.

McKinney also argued that the Eddings violaton in this case, where the trial court failed to consider relevant mitigating evidence, should be remanded to the trial court for resentencing not decided by the Arizona Supreme Court.

According to McKinney: “The proper remedy for that error is for the sentencer to consider mitigating evidence. An appellate court—which by nature reviews the trial court’s judgment—does not serve the same sentencing function.”

McKinney also notes that Florida, Illinois and Ohio Supreme Courts—along with the 6th and 10th Circuits—have held that Eddings errors must be remedied through resentencing in the trial court.

Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.