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April 19, 2018

Ohio Supreme Court unanimously rejects Sixth Amendment challenge to state's capital sentencing procedures

A couple of states have had their death penalty systems chewed up by the "post-Hurst hydra," the term I have used to describe the aftermath litigation in various courts in various states as judges apply the Supreme Court Sixth Amendment ruling in Hurst v. Florida. But yesterday in Ohio v. Mason, 2018-Ohio-1462 (Ohio April 18, 2018) (available here), the Ohio Supreme Court explained why Ohio's capital sentencing procedures are constitutionally sound. Here is how the opinion starts and some key passages:

At issue in this case is whether Ohio’s death-penalty scheme violates the right to a trial by jury as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Marion County Court of Common Pleas found that it does, but the Third District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s judgment. Because the Ohio scheme satisfies the Sixth Amendment, we affirm....

When an Ohio capital defendant elects to be tried by jury, the jury decides whether the offender is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of aggravated murder and — unlike the juries in Ring and Hurst — the aggravating-circumstance specifications for which the offender was indicted. R.C. 2929.03(B).  Then the jury — again unlike in Ring and Hurst — must “unanimously find[], by proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that the aggravating circumstances the offender was found guilty of committing outweigh the mitigating factors.”  R.C. 2929.03(D)(2).  An Ohio jury recommends a death sentence only after it makes this finding. Id.  And without that recommendation by the jury, the trial court may not impose the death sentence.

Ohio law requires the critical jury findings that were not required by the laws at issue in Ring and HurstSee R.C. 2929.03(C)(2). Ohio’s death-penalty scheme, therefore, does not violate the Sixth Amendment.  Mason’s various arguments to the contrary misapprehend both what the Sixth Amendment requires and what it prohibits....

While we uphold our conclusion in Belton that weighing is not a fact-finding process subject to the Sixth Amendment, we further conclude that even if the weighing process were to involve fact-finding under the Sixth Amendment, Ohio adequately affords the right to trial by jury during the penalty phase.  Mason contends that it does not, because the process permits a jury only to recommend a death sentence.  See R.C. 2929.03(D)(2).  Here, he emphasizes the statement in Hurst that “[a] jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.” Hurst, ___ U.S. at ___, 136 S.Ct. at 619, 193 L.Ed.2d 504.  But he fails to appreciate the material difference between the process by which an Ohio jury reaches its death recommendation and the Florida process at issue in Hurst.

April 19, 2018 at 09:03 AM | Permalink

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