McKinney v. Arizona (U.S. Supreme Court, February 2020)

Eighth Amendment/Remedies – When a court on collateral review finds that the sentencing court failed to consider mitigating factors in a capital case, a reweighing of the aggravating and mitigating factors by a state appellate court is a permissible remedy.

James McKinney was sentenced to death after being convicted on two counts of first-degree murder under Arizona law. On a petition for federal habeas twenty years later, a federal court found that the sentencing judge failed to properly consider McKinney’s PTSD as a mitigating factor, in violation of Eddings v. Oklahoma. On remand to the Arizona Supreme Court, McKinney argued that a jury should re-sentence him. Instead, the Arizona high court reweighed the aggravating and mitigating factors under Clemons v. Mississippi, where Supreme Court held that appellate courts can simply reweigh the factors if they find that a jury or judge improperly considered them.

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Arizona Supreme Court and upheld McKinney’s death sentence, holding that ” a Clemons reweighing is a permissible remedy for an Eddings error, and when an Eddings error is found on collateral review, a state appellate court may conduct a Clemons reweighing on collateral review.” The Court also held that Clemons was still good law after the Court’s decisions in Ring v. Arizona and Hurst v. Florida, where the Court held that a jury must find aggravating circumstances that make a defendant eligible for the death penalty, because the court here was simply weighing factors, not making a determination of the defendant’s eligibility for the death penalty.

Justice Ginsburg issued a dissenting opinion, arguing that McKinney’s death sentence was unconstitutional under Ring, which applied in this case since the Arizona Supreme Court proceeding was direct, not collateral, in character.

On certiorari to the Supreme Court of Arizona

Opinion by Kavanaugh, joined by Roberts, Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch

Dissenting opinion by Ginsburg, joined by Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan

Click here to read the opinion.


Tom Church

Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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