Supreme Court upholds death sentence for Phoenix double-murderer

A divided U.S. Supreme Court rejected Arizona death-row inmate James McKinney’s claim that he should get a new sentencing for two murders he committed during burglaries in Phoenix in 1991. (Photo by Vandana Ravikumar/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the death sentence for Phoenix double-murderer James McKinney, rejecting his argument that he should have been sentenced by a jury and not by the Arizona Supreme Court.

McKinney claimed that between the time of his first sentencing, in 1993, and his latest, in 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that death sentences had to be considered by juries and could not be imposed by judges.

But Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh said Tuesday the jury ruling would only apply if McKinney was going through a new trial the second time around. In McKinney’s case, the Arizona Supreme Court was merely “reweighing” aggravating and mitigating circumstances from his first sentencing, Kavanaugh wrote.

“There is no good reason – and McKinney supplies none – why state courts may not likewise conduct a … reweighing on collateral review,” Kavanaugh wrote for the majority in the 5-4 decision.

In a dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it is “beyond doubt” that the Arizona Supreme Court engaged in direct review in its second sentencing of McKinney and that the jury rule should apply.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, called the majority’s decision “unfair” and “unwise.”

“As a matter of simple fairness, it’s a terrible decision,” said Dunham, who said a jury should have been given the chance to weigh evidence of McKinney’s post-traumatic stress disorder.

James McKinney has been on Arizona’s death row since 1993 for two murders committed during burglaries in 1991, but the Supreme Court rejected his latest appeal of his sentence. (Photo courtesy Arizona Department of Corrections)

But Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said in a statement Tuesday that the Supreme Court “supported the administration of justice.” Legal experts said that had McKinney won, it could have affected as many as 15 other inmates on Arizona’s death row.

“We have an obligation to the victims, their families and our communities to uphold the rule of law and to see that death sentences of convicted murderers are carried out,” Brnovich’s statement said.

McKinney was convicted in 1992 with his half-brother, Charles Hedlund, for a string of Phoenix-area burglaries in1991, two of which ended with the execution-style murders of two victims, Christine Mertens and James McClain.

Court records show that McKinney and Hedlund broke into Mertens home on March 10, 1991, whom they beat and stabbed before shooting at point-blank range. Two weeks later, they shot McClain as he slept after breaking in to his house.

The killers got about $120 in the Mertens burglary and took McClain’s watch, car and three handguns.

They were convicted on murder, burglary and theft charges.

At sentencing, the judge acknowledged that McKinney had a traumatic childhood “beyond the comprehension of most people,” but he said that mitigating factor did not outweigh the aggravating factors in the case, including previous convictions, killing for monetary gain and “especially cruel and heinous” murders.

That sentence was overturned in 2015, when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that courts failed to give proper weight to the mitigating evidence in McKinney’s case, particularly a childhood that Dunham has said included regular beatings by an alcoholic father and neglect by a stepmother who locked the children out without food and water.

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After considering the mitigating and aggravating factors again, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld McKinney’s death sentence in 2018.

Dunham said a jury should have been given the opportunity to reweigh the evidence – especially given that McKinney’s PTSD was not properly considered, which Dunham said could carry more weight with a jury today given advancements in the understanding of mental health.

“The court is reweighing obsolete evidence – the same mitigation presented today would be many times stronger,” he said. “By having the wrong entity reweigh the wrong evidence, the court is guaranteed an unreliable and unfair sentencing outcome.”

Dan Peitzmeyer, executive director of Death Penalty Alternatives for Arizona, said the ruling may not be as “earth-shaking” as feared, because it is limited will likely only affect a few death row cases.

The decision “regrettably” reduces the power of juries in some capital sentences, said Brian Stull, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, who said juries continue to reject
the death penalty “year after year, awarding fewer and fewer death sentences.”

“Today’s setback cannot stop the steady march of governors and legislatures away from the death penalty,” Stull said.

Sharmila Roy, one of McKinney’s attorneys, said she was not surprised by the ruling, and her team is considering how it plans to proceed.

“I had expected this result almost exactly as it was said,” Roy said. “But I will figure out a way to get him justice regardless.”

Next Gen Reporter, Washington, D.C.