Pre-Oral Argument Briefing Information

Case Summary

In 1993, James Erin McKinney was convicted of two murders committed during the course of separate burglaries. Sentenced under judge-only penalty procedures that were later declared unconstitutional, McKinney’s case for life included the presentation of mitigating evidence of chronic, severe childhood abuse and neglect that left McKinney suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The sentencing judge found McKinney’s childhood to be so horrific that it was “beyond the comprehension of most people.” However, Arizona Supreme Court case decisions barred courts from considering mitigating evidence that was not causally connected to the crime — a linkage the U.S. Supreme Court said in 2004 “has no foundation in the decisions of this Court” — and the trial judge did not consider that evidence when it sentenced McKinney to die.

In 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted habeas corpus relief because of Arizona’s unconstitutional use of this “causal nexus” restriction. On remand, at the request of the State, the Arizona Supreme Court chose not to send the case back to the trial court for a new sentencing hearing. Instead, the Arizona Supreme Court conducted an “independent review” and affirmed McKinney’s death sentence. McKinney petitioned the United States Supreme Court for review arguing that he was entitled to a new sentencing trial conducted in compliance with current constitutional standards.

Original Proceedings

At the time of McKinney’s trial, Arizona law provided for a jury trial on guilt or innocence and a separate penalty phase in front of a judge. In his penalty-phase hearing, McKinney presented mitigating evidence of a terrifying childhood replete with instability, abuse, and neglect. The evidence from his early childhood showed that his mother was repeatedly forced to flee from his alcoholic father. McKinney and his siblings lived in “squalor” in a house littered with dirty diapers, sharing a room with livestock and going to school in “dirty clothes that reeked of urine from being on the bedroom floor with the animals.” McKinney “suffered regular and extensive physical, verbal, and emotional abuse.” His stepmother regularly beat him and his siblings, leaving marks and bruises. Often, they were locked out of the house for hours without food and water. According to testimony from a psychologist, McKinney was diagnosed with PTSD “resulting from this horrific childhood.”

The trial judge found that McKinney’s childhood was “beyond the comprehension of most people,” but refused to consider any of that evidence as a result of Arizona Supreme Court caselaw requiring mitigating evidence to have a direct causal connection to the crime. The trial judge did not believe there was a causal connection and ultimately sentenced McKinney to death. On direct appeal in 1996, the Arizona Supreme Court conducted an “independent review” of McKinney’s death sentence. The court dismissed McKinney’s PTSD concluding that it was inconsistent with McKinney’s behavior and lacked a causal connection to the crime.

Subsequent Developments

In June 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Arizona’s judicial sentencing procedures unconstitutional, ruling in Ring v. Arizona that capital defendants had a right to a jury determination of all facts upon which a death sentence could be imposed. However, the Court later ruled in Schriro v. Summerlin that it would enforce Ring only in cases that had not yet completed direct review at the time Ring was decided.

On federal habeas corpus review, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed McKinney’s death sentence, holding that Arizona’s requirement that mitigating evidence be “causally connected” to the crime violated the U.S. Supreme Court’s long established 1982 decision in Eddings v. Oklahoma. The appeals court ruling also affected every other Arizona death-penalty case in the 15-year time period in which the state courts unconstitutionally limited mitigating evidence. Arizona petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari review of this ruling, and the Court denied the petition.

The Ninth Circuit returned the case to the Arizona courts, but rather than giving McKinney a new sentencing hearing, Pima County prosecutors asked the Arizona Supreme Court to conduct its own independent review of his sentence. McKinney argued that resentencing by the court would violate his right under Ring to have a jury decide the aggravating and mitigating evidence in his case. The Arizona Supreme Court sided with the prosecutors and independently reweighed the aggravating and mitigating evidence. Affording little weight to McKinney’s PTSD, the court affirmed McKinney’s death sentence.

Before the United States Supreme Court

McKinney’s Supreme Court petition challenged the Arizona Supreme Court’s ruling, arguing that by reopening his direct appeal, the Arizona Supreme Court was required by Ring v. Arizona to provide constitutionally mandated jury sentencing. McKinney also argued that correcting an Eddings error about consideration of mitigating evidence requires a resentencing, not just state supreme court review. McKinney noted a circuit split on both of the issues that he urged the Supreme Court to resolve. Certiorari was granted on both issues.

Resources on McKinney v. Arizona

Court Opinions

Briefing on the Petition for Certiorari

Merits Briefing in the U.S. Supreme Court

Amicus Briefs

In Support of Granting Certiorari to Petitioner

In Support of Petitioner (Merits Stage)

In Support of Respondent (Merits Stage)

News coverage