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December 9, 2019

Two notable SCOTUS sentencing arguments to finish up 2019

In this post last week I flagged the criminal cases on the Supreme Court's argument schedule for this month.  The next two days close with a sentencing bang with arguments scheduled for Tuesday in Holguin-Hernandez v. U.S.No. 18-7739 and for Wednesday in McKinney v. ArizonaNo. 18-1109.  The SCOTUSblog folks have great previews of these cases, and here are links and their starts: 

"Argument preview: What arguments are preserved, and how, in federal sentencing appeals?" by Rory Little:

When a federal criminal defendant has already requested a lower sentence than the judge ultimately imposes, must that defendant again note an objection after the sentence is announced, to preserve anything other than “plain error” appellate review?  The general doctrine that a failure to object can forfeit an appellate claim is well-established.  Thus Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b) provides that an “error … not brought to the [trial] court’s attention” may be reviewed only for “plain error.”  On the other hand, Rule 51(b) explains that “[a] party may preserve a claim of error by informing the court — when the court ruling is made or sought — of the action the party wishes the court to take.”

Tuesday the justices will hear argument in Holguin-Hernandez v. United States to resolve a circuit split about how these two rules play out in federal sentencing proceedings.  It is an unusual case because the solicitor general has conceded that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit erred, so the court has appointed an amicus to argue in support of the judgment.

"Argument preview: Justices to take on procedural – but important – questions in case of Arizona death-row inmate" by Amy Howe:

It has been nearly 30 years since James McKinney and his half-brother killed two people while robbing the victims at their homes.  A judge in Arizona sentenced McKinney to death, but in 2015 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit threw out McKinney’s death sentence.  On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the dispute between McKinney and the state over how his case should proceed.

McKinney was convicted by a jury for the 1991 murders of Christine Mertens and Jim McClain, but he was sentenced to death by a judge.  Although McKinney’s lawyers offered evidence that McKinney suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the horrific abuse that he experienced as a child, the judge did not take that evidence into account when making his decision, because the law in effect at the time barred him from considering mitigating evidence that was not linked to the cause of the crime.

The Arizona Supreme Court upheld McKinney’s sentence, but in 2015 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the sentencing judge and the Arizona Supreme Court should have considered the evidence of McKinney’s PTSD, as required by Supreme Court’s 1982 decision in Eddings v. Oklahoma, in which the justices ruled that a sentencer in a capital case cannot decline to consider relevant mitigating evidence.

After the 9th Circuit’s decision, Arizona asked the Arizona Supreme Court to fix the error that the 9th Circuit had identified by reviewing McKinney’s death sentence again.  The state supreme court rejected McKinney’s argument that the Supreme Court’s recent cases required a jury, rather than a judge, to resentence him.  And it upheld McKinney’s death sentence, concluding that the mitigating circumstances in his case were not “sufficiently substantial” to warrant a lesser sentence.  McKinney asked the justices to weigh in on that ruling, which they agreed to do earlier this year.

There are two questions before the justices.  The first is whether the Arizona Supreme Court was required to apply current law — rather than the law that was in effect when McKinney’s conviction became final in 1996 — when weighing the mitigating and aggravating evidence to determine whether a death sentence was warranted.... The second question before the justices is whether, regardless of whether he is resentenced under the law in effect in 1996 or the law in effect now, McKinney is entitled to a new sentencing in the trial court, rather than the Arizona Supreme Court.

December 9, 2019 at 10:58 PM | Permalink

Comments

I make sure to close my sentencings with a final objection to both procedural and substantive reasonableness, no matter which circuit I'm in (better to have a habit than to forget once in the Fifth Circuit). To a number, District Court judges around the country have looked at me quizzically and asked what I mean.

At my last sentencing in Richmond (EDVa), this final objection opened a whole separate discussion with a judge who (to his credit) asked what he'd missed, and what we still needed to talk about if I still had objections.

Posted by: Jay Hurst | Dec 12, 2019 6:21:39 AM

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