Justices appear split in Arizona death sentence case

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court appeared divided Wednesday over whether an Arizona death row inmate should get a new sentencing trial nearly 30 years after being convicted of killing two people in home burglaries.

The outcome of inmate James Erin McKinney's appeal could affect as many as 15 of Arizona's 104 death row inmates.

McKinney wants the Supreme Court to throw out his sentences in the 1991 killings of Christine Mertens and Jim McClain so that a jury can decide whether he should face death or life in prison. He was first sentenced to death by a judge.

He also argues that courts have not fully considered the horrific physical abuse he suffered as a child.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that juries, not judges, must impose death sentences. The court has also ruled that mitigating factors, including childhood deprivations, must be factored into sentencing decisions.

The justices have to decide whether McKinney should be able to take advantage of the ruling that requires juries to impose death sentences, even though the court ruled it does not typically apply to older cases. They also have to determine whether the issue of McKinney's past must be handled in a trial court or could be dealt with by the Arizona Supreme Court, which upheld his sentence last year after it said it gave some weight to his childhood deprivations.

Several conservatives suggested they were skeptical of McKinney's claims. Justice Brett Kavanaugh voiced concern about "requiring a new sentencing 28 years after the murders and the families have been through this for three decades."

Justice Samuel Alito told Neal Katyal, McKinney's lawyer, that his client was seeking a "double windfall."

The liberal justices appeared more receptive to Katyal's arguments. Justice Elena Kagan said it would be strange not to apply current law to a "new proceeding to correct a constitutional error in the year 2019."

McKinney's half brother, Charles Michael Hedlund, also was convicted of murder in the deaths of Mertens and McClain during a series of burglaries in the Phoenix area. Hedlund also has asked the Supreme Court to review his death sentence on similar grounds.

Published: Fri, Dec 13, 2019