Supreme Court dashes Arizona death row inmate’s hope to avoid death penalty in 1992 double murder

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Danny Lee Jones, on Arizona death row since 1993, won’t be resentenced despite claims his lawyer didn’t do enough to win sympathy at sentencing. (File photo by Haley Smilow/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday reversed a lower court ruling ordering a new sentencing hearing for an Arizona death row inmate who strangled a 7-year-old and beat her father to death with a bat in 1992.

Lawyers for Danny Lee Jones, convicted in 1993 of the brutal murders in Bullhead City, argued that his death sentence was unfair because his lawyer failed to introduce evidence of his own childhood trauma and brain injuries – mitigating factors that might have led to a lesser sentence.

The state’s highest court had rejected that argument. But a federal appeals court agreed that Jones did not have effective counsel as guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s six justices in the conservative majority disagreed. The court’s three liberals dissented.

To win a resentencing, the court would have to agree it was “reasonably likely” the defendant wouldn’t have received a death sentence anyway, Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the high court.

But, Alito wrote, the federal appeals court “downplayed the serious aggravating factors present here and overstated the strength of mitigating evidence that differed very little from the evidence presented at sentencing.”

Jones is one of 112 inmates currently facing execution in Arizona, though the state has not executed anyone since November 2022. Corrections officials struggled to insert IV lines needed to administer lethal injections in all three executions carried out that year.

Two weeks after taking office in January 2023, Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, paused executions pending an independent review saying the state had a “history of mismanaged executions.”

She appointed retired Judge David Duncan to lead an independent commission to review the state’s execution process. In mid-May this year, Attorney General Kris Mayes assured the Maricopa County attorney that executions would resume in the first quarter of 2025, assuming Duncan has completed his work.

The Jones case dates back to 1992, when he and a friend, Robert Weaver, spent the day together drinking and using drugs.

According to court records, Jones had just become aware of Weaver’s gun collection, worth about $2,000, and decided to steal it. Jones beat Weaver to death with a baseball bat that he also used to crack the skull of Weaver’s grandmother, Katherine Gumina, who died later of her injuries.

Weaver’s daughter, Tisha, witnessed the attack on her great-grandmother and tried to hide from Jones.

At trial, Jones received two death sentences for the murders, plus a life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years for the attempted murder of Gumina.

The trial court found four mitigating circumstances that could have triggered leniency: long-term substance abuse, drug and alcohol impairment at the time of the murders, head trauma and childhood abuse. But the court deemed none of those sufficient for Jones to avoid capital punishment.

Jones challenged the sentences, arguing that his public defender had never tried a capital case before and should have sought a psychological evaluation before the conviction, which might have helped the defense make a stronger argument during the sentencing stage.

The Death Penalty Information Center argues that a defendant’s quality of representation in a capital case “can make the difference between life and death.”

In 2021, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, known for its liberal tilt, agreed that the performance by Jones’ lawyer “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness” and “below the prevailing professional norms.”

The federal appeals court cited the defense lawyer’s failure to obtain sufficient mental health testing or present enough of the possible mitigating evidence. The court reaffirmed its ruling in 2022.

Arizona turned to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in April.

The ruling, authored by Alito, held the 9th Circuit erroneously applied a legal analysis of prejudice in assessing Jones’ claims of “mitigating circumstances.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a dissent joined by Justice Elena Kagan. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the court’s third liberal justice, issued a separate dissent.

“‘Courts must ‘consider all the evidence—the good and the bad,’ and must ‘reweigh the evidence in aggravation against the totality of available mitigating evidence.’ The majority unnecessarily goes further and engages in the reweighing itself,” Sotomayor wrote.

Since 1937, the average Arizona Death Row inmate has spent 12 years on death row, according to the Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry.

News Digital Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Sahara Sajjadi expects to graduate in August 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Sajjadi has worked as a graduate assistant at The Reynolds Center, writing about topics pertaining to the business world. She is also a recipient of the White House Correspondents Association scholarship award.