Release Date:  February 25, 2020
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

Bookmark and Share
The high court in McKinney v. Arizona rejects attack on Arizona's method
of reinstating a capital sentence

The U. S. Supreme Court today rejected a double murderer’s claim that the state supreme court should have sent his case back for a sentencing hearing, rather than reweighing the case itself.

At issue in McKinney v. Arizona was whether the high court’s ruling in Ring v. Arizona—which requires a jury rather than a judge to find aggravating factors related to a murder that qualify a murderer for a death sentence—also applies to the actual sentencing decision, where a judge or a jury determine if the murderer should be sentenced to death or life without the possibility of parole.

The Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation joined the case to discourage a decision extending the requirement announced in Ring to include the actual sentencing decision.

The case involves the murders of two innocent people by James McKinney and his half-brother Charles Hedlund in March of 1991. The murders occurred during a two-month crime spree involving five burglaries. The homes to be burglarized were targeted in advance by the pair, based upon information from friends that there was money kept in them.

The fourth burglary in the spree occurred on the night of March 9, 1991, when McKinney and Hedlund broke into the home of Christine Mertens, 40, who was alone. McKinney attacked Ms. Mertens, beating and stabbing her savagely as she fought for her life. He then held her face down on the floor and killed her with a shot to the back of the head. The pair then ransacked the house stealing $120 in cash. Two weeks later, McKinney and Hedlund broke into the home of 65-year-old Jim McClain. After shooting Mr. McClain in the back of the head while he slept in his bed, the pair burglarized his home and stole his car.

In 1993, McKinney and Hedlund were convicted of first-degree murder. At the sentencing hearing the court found several mitigating factors, including McKinney’s difficult childhood and psychiatric testimony that he suffered post-traumatic stress as a result. Aggravating factors included the fact that McKinney killed his victims for money and that he brutally stabbed and beat Ms. Mertens as she fought for her life before killing her with a shot to the back of the head. The court determined that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors and sentenced McKinney to death. After his claims of error were rejected on direct appeal, McKinney’s petition for federal habeas corpus was rejected by a federal district judge. In 2015, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court by a narrow 6-5 vote, finding that McKinney’s sentencing judge had not adequately weighed the aggravating and mitigating factors.

In 2018, the Arizona Supreme Court conducted a review of the evidence introduced at sentencing and determined that the undisputed evidence in aggravation still outweighed the evidence in mitigation, justifying McKinney’s death sentence.

Last year, the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to hear McKinney’s appeal. He claimed that because the Arizona Supreme Court conducted a new review of his sentencing hearing his case was not final, and therefore he is entitled to an entirely new sentencing hearing before a jury. He additionally claimed that Ring v. Arizona requires that the sentencing jury, rather than a judge, determine that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors “beyond a reasonable doubt” before giving him a death sentence.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation joined this case at the invitation of the Arizona Attorney General to encourage the Supreme Court to reject this murderer’s claims. In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger argued that no federal law or Supreme Court decision requires that McKinney receive a new sentencing hearing. Ring requires a jury to find the factors which qualify a murderer for a death sentence, but does not extend to the actual choice of which sentence the murderer should receive. The choice, between life without the possibility of parole or death, has and should remain based on the nature of the crime, the criminal, and the circumstances by which he killed his victim(s).

In today’s decision, the Supreme Court endorsed the limited scope of the Ring rule as briefed by CJLF. “[I]n a capital sentencing proceeding . . . a jury (as opposed to a judge) is not required to weigh the aggravating and mitigating circumstances or to make the ultimate sentencing decision within the relevant sentencing range.”

“The Arizona Supreme Court properly weighed the aggravating and mitigating evidence in this case, fixing the problem the Ninth Circuit claimed to find,” said Scheidegger. “Nothing in federal law requires sending this case back to a jury and starting the appeals process all over again.”

CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.