Supreme Court: Arizona can execute Danny Lee Jones despite attorney errors

The Supreme Court on Thursday overturned an appeals court ruling
giving Danny Lee Jones a new sentencing hearing, finding that attorney
errors did not warrant a second shot at avoiding the death penalty.  

Splitting
along ideological lines, the six conservative justices said the Ninth
Circuit overstated the impact of these blunders and completely ignored
the elements of Jones’ case that warranted his death sentence. 

“When
a capital defendant claims that he was prejudiced at sentencing because
counsel failed to present available mitigating evidence, a court must
decide whether it is reasonably likely that the additional evidence
would have avoided a death sentence,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority. 

The
George W. Bush appointee said the Arizona Supreme Court has never
vacated a death sentence for someone who committed multiple murders or
any of the other aggravating circumstances in Jones’ case. 

“The
absence of such a case strongly suggests that Jones has no reasonable
probability of escaping the death penalty,” Alito wrote. 

Jones
killed Robert Weaver and his 7-year-old daughter, Tisha, in 1992. The
men were drinking and using methamphetamine until Jones hit Weaver over
the head with a baseball bat. Jones continued his assault, attacking
Weaver’s grandmother and then his daughter. 

Jones was arrested
for the murders of Weaver and his daughter and the attempted murder of
Weaver’s grandmother — who later succumbed to her injuries. 

During
the trial, Jones said drug use led him to commit the murders, but the
state argued that Jones was a premeditated killer who wanted to steal
Weaver’s guns. The public defender assigned to represent Jones learned
that he was oxygen-deprived at birth and had a lithium deficiency — a
condition linked to serious psychiatric disorders. Jones’s medical
records showed that he was medicated for mood disorders, had attempted
suicide and was admitted to a mental hospital. 

Despite having
access to this information, Jones’s attorney did not further investigate
his mental health until after he was convicted. 

Jones’s lawyer
presented three witnesses during sentencing, including a doctor to
testify about his mental health issues. Dr. Jack Potts was only able to
conduct a short examination of Jones, however, so his report was less
than one page of analysis. Dr. Potts advocated for more testing, but the
request was denied. 

A trial judge imposed two death sentences
for the murders. The same judge denied Jones’s post-conviction appeal
for ineffective counsel. 

Jones then claimed his conviction
violated federal law. The lower court dismissed his claims but a
unanimous panel on the Ninth Circuit reversed. 

The appeals court applied the test set out in Strickland v. Washington,
which determines if a person’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel has
been violated to require reversal of a conviction or to set aside a
death sentence. The panel found that Jones met the deficient performance
and prejudice prongs on Strickland on both claims. 

Under
the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, Jones would receive a new sentencing
hearing. Arizona appealed to the Supreme Court to reverse. 

The conservative justices said the appeals court errored in its application of Strickland by not adequately considering the weighty aggravating circumstances or expert testimony in Jones’ case. 

Alito
said the blunders led Jones to believe he was entitled to relief
whenever relevant evidence was produced. But the Bush appointee said
there needed to be a possibility that the new evidence would yield a
different result. 

“Imagine a defendant with the worst possible
aggravating circumstances, say, multiple, vulnerable victims; torture; a
lengthy record of violent crime; no remorse; and a vow to kill again if
given the chance,” Alito wrote. “According to Jones, if the defense is
able to show that trial counsel failed to produce any mitigating
evidence that can be characterized as ‘substantial,’ the defendant must
be resentenced.” 

In that theoretical case, Alito said the
aggravating circumstances greatly outweigh the mitigating evidence and
make it very unlikely that a new hearing would result in a different
sentence. 

Alito said Jones’ aggravating factors were extremely
weighty and his new evidence would not carry much weight in Arizona
courts. 

“As a result, there is no reasonable probability that the
evidence on which Jones relies would have altered the outcome at
sentencing,” Alito wrote. 

All three liberal justices dissented
from the ruling. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said she agreed that the Ninth
Circuit errored in applying the court’s precedents but thought the
appeals court should get another chance to review the case. Sotomayor
critiqued Alito for reweighing the case himself. 

“The record in
this case is complex, contested, and thousands of pages long,” the
Barack Obama appointee wrote. “In light of this ‘extensive record’ and
“intricate procedural history, . . . this is not an appropriate case to
reach and settle [a] fact-sensitive issue.’” 

Justice Elena Kagan, also an Obama appointee, joined Sotomayor’s opinion. 

Justice
Ketanji Brown Jackson was the only justice to agree with the Ninth
Circuit’s ruling. The Joe Biden appointee said the conservative majority
made mistakes of its own when trying to find legal error in the case.
Jackson said she felt that the appeals court correctly applied Strickland

“The
panel not only evaluated the mitigating evidence that Jones’s trial
counsel failed to unearth, it also specifically considered all of the
aggravating factors,” Jackson wrote. 

The Biden appointee said the
appeals court’s discussion of aggravating factors was concise but noted
there is no benchmark length for these considerations. 

“The
majority’s real critique does not appear to relate to the Ninth
Circuit’s methodology,” Jackson wrote. “Rather, it merely takes issue
with the weight that the Ninth Circuit assigned to each of the relevant
facts.”