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Justices reinstate death sentence for Arizona man

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By a vote of 6-3 along ideological lines, the justices ruled that a federal appeals court was wrong when it ordered post-conviction relief for Danny Lee Jones, who contended that his Sixth Amendment right to have adequate representation by his lawyer was violated during the sentencing phase of his trial.

Jones was convicted and sentenced to die in 1993 for the brutal murders of three people: Robert Weaver, Weaver’s seven-year-old daughter Tisha, and Katherine Gumina, Weaver’s grandmother. Jones beat each of his victims with a baseball bat.

After his appeals and his requests for post-conviction relief in state court were denied, Jones went to federal court in Arizona, where he argued that his attorney – who had never been the lead attorney in a capital case – spent too little time preparing for the sentencing phase of his trial. At an evidentiary hearing, Jones introduced evidence that he suffered from mental illness and cognitive impairments caused by a history of head trauma; he had also been a victim of abuse as a child and had a history of substance abuse.

A federal district court in Arizona rejected Jones’ request for post-conviction relief, explaining that the new evidence that he had provided in his federal post-conviction proceedings didn’t add much to the picture before the state trial judge who had originally sentenced him to death.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed that decision. Applying the Supreme Court’s 1984 decision in Strickland v. Washington, which sets out the test to determine whether a lawyer’s performance was so inadequate that it violated the Constitution, the court of appeals concluded that there was a “reasonable probability” that, if the new evidence from Jones’ federal post-conviction proceedings had been presented at his original sentencing, Jones would not have been sentenced to death.

In a 16-page decision by Justice Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court reversed the 9th Circuit’s ruling and reinstated Jones’ death sentence. Like the district court, Alito concluded that “[m]ost of the mitigating evidence” – that is, evidence that might weigh in favor of sparing Jones’ life – “was not new, and what was new would not carry much weight in Arizona courts.” By contrast, Alito continued, “the aggravating factors” – that is, evidence that might weigh in favor of the death penalty – “present here are extremely weighty.” For example, Alito observed, this case involves not just one homicide but three, as well as cruelty and the death of a child, and it was motivated by a desire to steal Weaver’s gun collection.

Although the court of appeals was required to compare the mitigating and aggravating factors, Alito explained, instead it “downplayed the serious aggravating factors present here and overstated the strength of mitigating evidence that differed very little from the evidence presented at sentencing.” If the court of appeals had conducted its analysis properly, Alito concluded, it “would have had no choice but to affirm the decision of the District Court denying habeas relief.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, in a brief opinion joined by Justice Elena Kagan. She agreed with Alito that the court of appeals was wrong when it “all but ignored” the aggravating circumstances in Jones’ case. But the 9th Circuit, rather than the Supreme Court, should be responsible for taking the next step of reweighing the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, Sotomayor contended. This is particularly true, she noted, when this case involves a “complex record containing contested medical diagnoses and disputed allegations of abuse and trauma.”

Unlike her eight colleagues, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson believed that the court of appeals got its analysis correct the first time. The court of appeals, she argued, “not only evaluated the mitigating evidence that Jones’s trial counsel failed to unearth, it also specifically considered all of the aggravating factors.” The court’s discussion of that analysis may have been brief, she acknowledged, but “there is no benchmark length for any such discussion.”

This article was originally published at Howe on the Court

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Justices reinstate death sentence for Arizona man, SCOTUSblog (May. 30, 2024, 3:50 PM),