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Arizona Death Sentence Was Unconstitutional, En Banc 9th Rules

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on December 30, 2015 2:59 PM

When James McKinney was sentenced to death for two murders, evidence of his turbulent childhood and post-traumatic stress disorder wasn't considered a mitigating factor. For over 15 years, Arizona courts relied on a "causal nexus" test for mitigating factors, which forbids consideration of family background and mental illness as mitigating factors.

Arizona's causal nexus test for mitigating factors is unconstitutional, a divided Ninth Circuit, sitting en banc, ruled on Tuesday. The decision not only puts McKinney's death sentence into question, it could jeopardize many Arizona capital sentences issued between 1989 and 2005.

Arizona's Causal Nexus Test

The central issue of the case, McKinney v. Ryan, was what sort of mitigating evidence a defendant is allowed to present before being sentenced to death. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Eddings v. Oklahoma that, under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, sentencers in capital cases cannot "refuse to consider, as a matter of law, any relevant mitigating evidence."

Prior to McKinney's sentencing, evidence about his abusive family and PTSD was excluded. The Arizona Supreme Court upheld McKinney's sentence in 1996. At the time, Arizona law required five mitigating factors to be considered in capital sentencing.

Non-statutory factors, such as family and mental condition, were admitted if they passed a causal nexus test. In 1989, the Arizona Supreme Court found that a difficult family background, on its own, failed that test. Instead, a defendant must show that "something in that background had an effect or impact on his behavior that was beyond the defendant's control." In 1996, the state supreme court relied on the same logic to exclude consideration of McKinney's PTSD as a mitigating factor.

Objectively Unreasonable?

That test was "in clear violation of Eddings," the Ninth Circuit ruled on Tuesday, in an opinion authored by Judge William A. Fletcher. Under Eddings, sentencers must consider ANY aspect of a defendant's character or circumstances proffered, though they need not give such mitigating factors any particular weight. Arizona, instead, had a flat prohibition on many mitigating factors, violating Eddings. That was enough to overcome the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act's deferential requirement that federal courts only overturn state rulings which are "objectively unreasonable."

Judge Carlos Bae, joined by four other Ninth Circuit judges, dissented. The majority's ruling, according to the dissent, "calls into question every single death sentence imposed in Arizona between 1898 and 2005 and our cases which have denied habeas relief as to those sentences."

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