WASHINGTON (AP) — A sharply divided Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the death sentence for an Arizona inmate who was convicted of killing two people in home burglaries nearly 30 years ago.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing for the court’s conservative justices, rejected the arguments of inmate James Erin McKinney that he deserved a new sentencing hearing so that a jury can decide whether he should face death or life in prison. He was first sentenced to death by a judge.
He also argued that courts have not fully considered the horrific physical abuse he suffered as a child.
The court’s four liberal justices dissented. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in dissent that she “would hold McKinney’s death sentences unconstitutional.”
The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that juries, not judges, must impose death sentences. The court has also ruled that mitigating factors, including childhood deprivations, must be factored into sentencing decisions.
The justices had to decide whether McKinney should be able to take advantage of the ruling that requires juries to impose death sentences, even though the court ruled it does not typically apply to older cases. They also had to determine whether the issue of McKinney’s past must be handled in a trial court or could be dealt with by the Arizona Supreme Court, which upheld his sentence in 2018 after it said it gave some weight to his childhood deprivations.
Kavanaugh said McKinney was not entitled to resentencing by a jury and that the Arizona high court review was sufficient.
McKinney’s half brother, Charles Michael Hedlund, also was convicted of murder in the deaths of Christine Mertens and Jim McClain during a series of burglaries in the Phoenix area. Hedlund also has asked the Supreme Court to review his death sentence on similar grounds.
The outcome could affect as many as 15 of Arizona’s 104 death row inmates.