On Wednesday, December 13, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in Thornell v. Jones, its first death penalty case to be heard at oral argument in the 2023 term. Unlike most death penalty cases that seek Supreme Court review, the petitioner here is the state of Arizona, which asks the Court to reverse the Ninth Circuit’s grant of relief for death-sentenced prisoner Danny Lee Jones (pictured). The Ninth Circuit held that Mr. Jones demonstrated ineffective assistance of counsel at his sentencing phase under Strickland v. Washington (1984). So far this term, the Court has denied certiorari review to 37 prisoner-petitioners and granted review to one, while denying certiorari review to one other state-petitioner and granting it in this case. 

Mr. Jones was convicted of the 1992 murders of Robert Weaver and his seven-year-old daughter Tisha, as well as the attempted murder of Mr. Weaver’s grandmother Katherine Gumina. According to court documents, Mr. Jones and Mr. Weaver had been drinking and using methamphetamines in Mr. Weaver’s garage when they got into an argument, after which Mr. Jones attacked Mr. Weaver and his family members. At sentencing, Mr. Jones’ attorney Lee Novak presented a family witness and a court-appointed psychiatrist who testified about Mr. Jones’ childhood health problems, abusive biological father and stepfather, and history of drug and alcohol dependency. Testimony showed that growing up, Mr. Jones suffered head trauma to the point of losing consciousness on at least seven occasions, including two falls from roofs as an adolescent. Mr. Jones also served in the Marines, where he was once hospitalized after a mugging that left him unconscious on the side of the road. (For more information on military veterans on death row, see DPIC’s recent Veterans Day Review.)

However, Mr. Novak did not present evidence in his possession that Mr. Jones had received treatment for mood disorders, attempted suicide five years before the murders, spent time in a mental institution, and suffered multiple neurochemical deficiencies. Mr. Novak did not present any additional family witnesses and the court-appointed expert conducted only a “short and cursory evaluation.” The expert recommended further neurologic testing such as a CAT scan, MRI, and EEG based on “very strong evidence” of “traumatic brain injury and…organic neurologic dysfunctions” that could explain Mr. Jones’ behavior on the day of the murders, and Mr. Novak requested a continuance to conduct the testing. The trial court denied the request. 

A district court denied Mr. Jones relief after an evidentiary hearing but was reversed by a unanimous panel of Ninth Circuit judges, who held that Mr. Novak was constitutionally ineffective by failing to secure a defense mental health expert or seek neurological testing before sentencing. The Ninth Circuit denied a request for rehearing en banc and reconsideration by the full court over the dissents of ten judges. Arizona now argues that the Ninth Circuit panel failed to give deference to the district court’s ruling against Mr. Jones and improperly weighed the aggravating and mitigating factors in violation of Strickland. Mr. Jones argues that Mr. Novak’s failure to uncover and present key evidence is undisputed, the Ninth Circuit faithfully applied the Strickland standard, and Arizona has not shown that any other courts have ruled differently in similar cases. 

This is the second time that the Supreme Court has considered Mr. Jones’ case. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Jones after a district court held that he had not shown ineffective assistance of counsel and the Ninth Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court issued a summary opinion vacating the judgment and remanding for consideration of whether Mr. Jones’ claims had been procedurally defaulted. The earlier ruling appeared to influence the Ninth Circuit dissenters here. “[W]e should have taken this case en banc so that the Supreme Court, which has already vacated our judgment once, does not grant certiorari a second time and reverse us,” Judge Mark Bennett wrote on behalf of nine judges in dissent from the denial of rehearing en banc.

On October 2, the Supreme Court granted review to prisoner-petitioner Manuel Ovante Jr., vacated the judgment against him, and remanded without oral argument in light of its decision in Cruz v. Arizona earlier this year. Mr. Ovante is one of several dozen Arizona death-sentenced prisoners who were unconstitutionally barred from informing the jury that a life sentence meant life without parole, and are now eligible for relief.