Supreme Court Rules Second Mental Retardation Determination Does Not Constitute Double Jeopardy

On June 1, in the case of Bobby v. Bies, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Michael Bies had to bring his claim of mental retardation before a separate state hearing, thereby reversing the lower federal courts that held such a hearing would constitute double jeopardy. The Court held that Ohio could contest Bies’ assertion that he is mentally retarded and that this does not subject Bies to double jeopardy, despite the fact that the Ohio Supreme Court in 1996 had recognized his mental retardation as a mitigating factor in upholding his original death sentence. The Court made clear that it intended the states to have the primary responsibility for implementing Atkins. (In 2002, the United States Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia that the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution bars execution of mentally retarded offenders.). Justice Ginsburg wrote the opinion in Bies.

In 1992, an Ohio jury found Michael Bies guilty of the kidnapping, attempted rape, and murder of a ten-year-old. In sentencing Bies to death, one of the mitigating circumstances considered by the jury was that he was mentally retarded. Bies appealed both his conviction and his death sentence. Twice the higher courts in Ohio affirmed both his conviction and his death sentence, but sided with him on the question of his mental retardation being a mitigating factor.

In 2003, Bies sought post-conviction relief in Ohio state court, this time claiming that he could not be executed under Atkins, and that the state government was prevented from contesting the fact of his mental retardation as this fact had already been determined by the two prior state court proceedings. Before a full panel could hear this case, he appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. This court, in 2008 vacated his sentence of death and ordered that he be resentenced to a sentence other than death because Ohio could not reopen the issue of his mental retardation as this subjected him to double jeopardy.

Bies will now get a hearing in the state court to determine if he fits the Atkins criteria. In deciding whether Bies is mentally retarded, Ohio will use the following criteria set out by Ohio’s Supreme Court: a definition of mental retardation requires: “(1) significantly subaverage intellectual functioning, (2) significant limitations in two or more adaptive skills, such as communication, self-care, and self-direction, and (3) onset before the age of 18.” (State v. Lott, 2002). If Bies is found to be mentally retarded, he cannot receive a death sentence.

See Bobby, Warden v. Bies, No. 08–598 U. S. (June 1, 2009). (A. Liptak, “Court Grants Hearing on Inmate’s Retardation,” New York Times, June 2, 2009). See Mental Retardation and U.S. Supreme Court.