Supreme Court Considers If Death Row Inmate Deserves New Sentencing

Matthew Vadum
By Matthew Vadum
April 18, 2024Judiciary
Supreme Court Considers If Death Row Inmate Deserves New Sentencing
The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on March 26, 2024. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Women's March)

The Supreme Court grappled with the case of an Arizona death row inmate on April 17 who claims he received ineffective assistance from counsel during the sentencing process.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant the right to effective assistance of counsel. At issue in this case is whether a federal appeals court properly weighed the evidence –both mitigating and aggravating as to the inmate— before ruling that respondent Danny Lee Jones was prejudiced by an ineffective attorney during sentencing.

In the case, Arizona is appealing a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that the condemned man was entitled to a new sentencing hearing. The prisoner contends that his lawyer failed to secure a mental health expert and conduct appropriate medical tests in a timely manner during sentencing.

The hearing comes after the Supreme Court cracked down on ineffective-assistance-from-counsel claims in May 2022. In Shinn v. Ramirez, the court held 6–3 that federal courts reviewing inmate cases may not conduct evidentiary hearings to fully examine ineffective-counsel claims that should have been raised in state court proceedings.

The current case is Thornell v. Jones. Petitioner Ryan Thornell is the director of the Arizona Department of Corrections.

The case goes back to March 1992 when court documents say Mr. Jones was visiting his friend, Robert Weaver.

Mr. Jones and Mr. Weaver had been using methamphetamines and drinking in Mr. Weaver’s garage in Bullhead City, Arizona, when an argument began.

Mr. Jones attacked Mr. Weaver from behind, hitting him in the head with a bat. He also attacked his victim’s grandmother, but she survived. Mr. Weaver’s 7-year-old daughter, Tisha, hid in a bedroom, but Mr. Jones found her and struck her twice in the head and either strangled her or suffocated her with a pillow.

After the child died, Mr. Jones stole Mr. Weaver’s gun collection, grabbed the keys to the grandmother’s car, went to the garage, found Mr. Weaver, and again hit him, this time until he died. After putting the firearms in the car, Mr. Jones fled.

The public defender assigned to Mr. Jones’s case had been an attorney for three years but had never been lead attorney in a capital case. Mr. Jones was convicted of killing Mr. Weaver and his daughter and for the attempted murder of the grandmother.

Following the convictions, the public defender visited Mr. Jones’s mother and second stepfather in the search for potentially mitigating evidence for the sentencing hearing.

At the sentencing hearing, the attorney presented testimony from an investigator and the stepfather. The investigator testified about an accomplice allegedly involved in the crimes. The stepfather testified that Mr. Jones’s mother gave birth to Mr. Jones when she was 15 years old and had complications during the pregnancy and delivery.

He also said Mr. Jones had experienced several head injuries when he was growing up and that his personality began to change drastically when he was 13 or 14 years old. Mr. Jones began lying, skipping classes at school, drinking, and using drugs. His first stepfather had introduced him to marijuana when he was about 10 years old and by the time he was 17, he was an alcoholic.

But in December 1993, Mr. Jones was sentenced to death.

The 9th Circuit previously ordered that Mr. Jones be given a new sentencing hearing but the Supreme Court overturned that decision in 2011.

A federal district court denied Mr. Jones’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel during the sentencing process.

Then, last year, a divided 9th Circuit applied the standards laid down by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and reversed that decision, without giving deference to the district court’s detailed factual findings. The circuit court held that Mr. Jones’s sentence may have been different if his lawyer had produced evidence that his medical problems had left him mentally impaired.

The legal issue here is whether the 9th Circuit violated the Supreme Court’s 1984 ruling in Strickland v. Washington, which held that to make out a claim for ineffective counsel, it must be shown that the defense attorney was objectively deficient and that there was a reasonable likelihood a different outcome would have followed if a competent attorney had represented the accused person.

During oral arguments on April 17, justices sparred with lawyers over the 9th Circuit’s ruling in the case.

Arizona Deputy Solicitor General Jason Lewis said the circuit court had already done enough in this protracted case and that the appeals process has to eventually come to a close.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested that the Supreme Court, which deals with appeals, was not the appropriate body to sift through the mountain of available evidence.

“That’s nice, but we’re not fact finders, and we generally don’t weigh evidence,” she said.

“There’s thousands of pages in this record,” Justice Sotomayor added.

Justice Elena Kagan suggested to Mr. Jones’s attorney, Jean-Claude Andre, that the circuit court “has to look at the good and the bad,” and weigh mitigating evidence against aggravating evidence.

“There were lots of aggravators in this case, and the circuit court doesn’t even mention some of them,” she said.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked if it would be best to return the case to the lower court.

“Justice Kagan was asking you about whether the 9th Circuit had considered the aggravating evidence alongside the mitigating evidence and … the 9th Circuit’s opinion, I must say I read, similarly to Justice Kagan, it didn’t really do that,” Justice Barrett said.

Mr. Andre said if the Supreme Court determines the weighing was “insufficient, I think that is the proper recourse, to send it back to the 9th Circuit.”

Justice Samuel Alito asked Mr. Andre if relief was justified if a defendant had evidence his actions can be explained even when aggravating factors point to a tougher sentence.

What would happen if a defendant was “sort of like Hannibal Lecter” and told the media “I love to kill,” the justice asked, referring to the imprisoned serial killer in the 1991 hit movie, “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Mr. Andre replied that his position was “quite more nuanced.”

Since this case has already been before the Supreme Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch asked if the right course of action would be for the high court to weigh the evidence itself according to the principles articulated in the Strickland ruling.

Referring to comments by Justice Barrett, Justice Gorsuch said, “wouldn’t there be some value to everybody to have some finality in this case and just have us do the Strickland weighing in the first instance?”

Mr. Andre said he was not opposed but typically the Supreme Court will remand such cases to a lower court.

“But if this court wants to do that, you know, you have the record. You have the law,” he added.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on Thornell v. Jones by the end of June.

From The Epoch Times

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