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May 30, 2024

By 6-3 vote, SCOTUS rejects Ninth Circuit reversal of Arizona death sentence in Thornell v. Jones

In its one criminal decision among three new opinions handed down by the Supreme Court this morning, the Justices by a 6-3 vote reversed a Ninth Circuit ruling in the capital case of in Thornell v. Jones, No. 22-982 (S. Ct. May 30, 2024) (available here).  Justice Alito authored the opinion for the Court, which starts and ends this way:

In this case, we review a decision of the Ninth Circuit ordering the resentencing of a defendant who, in order to steal a gun collection, committed three gruesome killings, including the cold-blooded murder of a 7-year-old girl.  The Ninth Circuit held that the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel was violated during the sentencing phase of his capital trial.  In reaching this conclusion, the Ninth Circuit substantially departed from the well-established standard articulated by this Court in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668 (1984).  Among other things, the Ninth Circuit all but ignored the strong aggravating circumstances in this case. As a result, we must reverse the judgment below....

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.  This analysis requires an evaluation of the strength of all the evidence and a comparison of the weight of aggravating and mitigating factors.  The Ninth Circuit did not heed that instruction; rather, it downplayed the serious aggravating factors present here and overstated the strength of mitigating evidence that differed very little from the evidence presented at sentencing. Had the Ninth Circuit engaged in the analysis required by Strickland, it would have had no choice but to affirm the decision of the District Court denying habeas relief.  We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Interestingly, Justuce Sotomayor's dissenting opinion (which was joined by Justice Kagan), agrees with the majority that the Ninth Circuit erred in its ineffective assistance prejudice inquiry, but she dissent because she "would vacate the judgment below and remand for the Ninth Circuit to consider the full record in the first instance."

In contrast, Justice Jackson dissents on the merits, and here opinion starts this way:

In its search for legal error in this capital habeas case, the Court makes many mistakes of its own, including misreading the Ninth Circuit’s opinion. I write separately to emphasize a particular misstep: the Court’s conclusion that “the Ninth Circuit all but ignored the strong aggravating circumstances in this case.” Ante, at 1. In my view, the Ninth Circuit’s analysis satisfied its obligations under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).

May 30, 2024 at 10:39 AM | Permalink


It's obvious the Biden appointee, Justice Jackson is way off the mark here. Biden
now pledges to nominate Progressives to SCOTUS if he is re-elected. The Judiciary is doomed if that happens.

Posted by: DaveP | May 30, 2024 11:34:44 AM

DaveP, you write that the "Judiciary is doomed if that happens." My friend, the judiciary was doomed when Thomas began sucking at the teat of the his billionaire MAGA friends, and MAGA justice Alito threw his wife under the bust for filing a MAGA flag.

Posted by: anon | May 30, 2024 2:26:26 PM

Megadittoes, DaveP!

The only reason to have appeals of capital sentences is to protect the Republic from rats, libs, and progressives from bringing in Stalinist show trials to dispose of Patriots like the heroes of January 6.

No one in U.S. history has ever been posthumously exonerated. We therefore know that we have never put an innocent man (or woman) to death. Our track record is the best in the world.

Stop tinkering with the machinery of death and let that motor run! MAGA

Posted by: MAGA 2024 | May 30, 2024 3:18:21 PM

Trump convicted on all 34 counts!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

Posted by: anon14 | May 30, 2024 5:25:00 PM

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