A state court may reweigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances without a jury after a death-sentenced defendant is granted relief on collateral review for failure to consider a mitigating circumstance at the original trial, the U.S. Supreme Court held February 25 in McKinney v. Arizona.

James McKinney was convicted in 1992 of two murders and sentenced to death.

Years later, he was granted federal habeas relief on grounds that the Arizona courts had committed Eddings error by failing to consider McKinney’s post-traumatic stress disorder as a mitigating circumstance.

The Arizona Supreme Court itself then reweighed the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and again sentenced McKinney to death.

McKinney appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  He contended a jury must resentence him.


The Supreme Court disagreed, in a 5-4 ruling.

The Court had previously held, in Clemons, that a state appellate court can reweigh aggravators and mitigators when one of the aggravators is found unconstitutional.

“There is no meaningful difference for purposes of appellate reweighing between subtracting an aggravator from one side of the scale and adding a mitigator to the other side,” the Court said.  “Both involve weighing, and the Court’s decision in Clemons ruled that appellate tribunals may perform a reweighing.”

“In short, a Clemons reweighing is a permissible remedy for an Eddings error,” the Court ruled.

McKinney argued a jury never found an aggravating circumstance in his case, as now required by Ring and Hurst.

“The hurdle is that McKinney’s case became final on direct review in 1996, long before Ring and Hurst,” the Court said.  “Ring and Hurst do not apply retroactively on collateral review.”

Finally, McKinney argued he should receive the benefit of Ring and Hurst because the Arizona Supreme Court’s reweighing constituted a reopening of direct review.

“But the premise of that argument is wrong because the Arizona Supreme Court’s reweighing of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances occurred on collateral review, not direct review,” the Court said.

Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan, dissented.  They would hold that the Arizona Supreme Court’s reweighing constituted “direct” review, causing Ring and Hurst to apply.