U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Arizona Death Penalty Sentence

James McKinney has been on Arizona’s death row since 1993 for two murders committed with his half-brother during burglaries in the Phoenix area in 1991. (Photo courtesy Arizona Department of Corrections)

WASHINGTON – On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the death penalty sentence of Arizona convicted killer James Erin McKinney. During a brutal crime spree in 1991, McKinney murdered Christine Mertens and Jim McClain in their Chandler homes.

McKinney claimed that the judge who sentenced him to death for the murders failed to consider his troubled childhood and post-traumatic stress disorder. His attorneys argued that subsequent Supreme Court rulings say McKinney should have been sentenced by a jury instead.

“Today the Supreme Court supported the administration of justice,” said Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich in a press release. “We have an obligation to the victims, their families and our communities to uphold the rule of law and to see that death sentences of convicted murderers are carried out.”

McKinney and his half-brother, Charles Hedlund, were convicted by separate Maricopa County juries in 1993 for burglaries and murders. At the time, the law allowed judges to sentence convicted defendants to death.

In 2002, in its Ring decision, the U.S. Supreme Court permitted defendants to choose whether they wanted a judge or jury to impose a death sentence. The Court also ruled that a judge and jury must consider mitigating factors during sentencing.

The Ring decision happened well after McKinney’s crimes and sentence. During oral arguments, some of the Supreme Court justices said that Ring is not retroactive and asked why it should apply to McKinney’s case. “You’re requiring a new jury sentencing 28 years after the murders and after the victims’ families have been through this for three decades,” said Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The Court ruled today that Ring does not require a jury “to weigh the aggravating and mitigating circumstances or to make the ultimate sentencing decision within the relevant sentencing range.”

In 2018, the Arizona Supreme Court weighed the aggravating and mitigating evidence and affirmed McKinney’s death sentence.

In today’s opinion, the Court ruled the Arizona Supreme Court’s 2018 review of McKinney’s case was sufficient.

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