U.S. Supreme Court
High Court Lectures 6th Circuit on Double Jeopardy in Retarded Inmate’s Appeal
Posted Jun 1, 2009 10:11 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss
The U.S. Supreme Court is giving Ohio another chance to prove an inmate should be sentenced to death despite evidence of mental retardation.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in an opinion (PDF) for a unanimous court, wrote that a federal appeals court had "fundamentally misperceived” the application of the double jeopardy clause and misinterpreted the law of collateral estoppel when it ruled the retardation issue was already decided. The Supreme Court reversed the appeals court ruling for inmate Michael Bies and sent the case back for a hearing on whether retardation made his execution unconstitutional.
The Associated Press noted the opinion.
The mental retardation issue was put before the jury as it weighed mitigating factors in Bies' case, a fact noted by the Ohio Supreme Court in a 1996 opinion affirming the conviction. The state supreme court had noted Bies’ 69 IQ and his “mild to borderline mental retardation,” saying the finding deserved some weight but was outweighed by other factors.
The state supreme court had ruled before the U.S. Supreme Court found the execution of mentally retarded inmates was unconstitutional in the 2002 Supreme Court decision Atkins v. Virginia. Ginsburg noted that prosecutors had little incentive to contest retardation evidence before Atkins, and they should be allowed to litigate the issue even if the retardation issue had been resolved. Atkins did not definitively establish when mental retardation is serious enough to save a defendant from the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Ginsburg said the appeals ruling for Bies by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Cincinnati had “fundamentally misperceived” the application of the double jeopardy clause when it said the issue could not be relitigated and barred Bies' execution.
Bies was not “twice put in jeopardy,” Ginsburg said. “He was sentenced to death, and Ohio sought no further prosecution or punishment. Instead of 'serial prosecutions by the government, this case involves serial efforts by the defendant to vacate his capital sentence.’ … Further, mental retardation for purposes of Atkins, and mental retardation as one mitigator to be weighed against aggravators, are discrete issues.
“Most grave among the 6th Circuit’s misunderstandings, issue preclusion is a plea available to prevailing parties. The doctrine bars relitigation of determinations necessary to the ultimate outcome of a prior proceeding. The Ohio courts’ recognition of Bies’ mental state as a mitigating factor was hardly essential to the death sentence he received. On the contrary, the retardation evidence cut against the final judgment. Issue preclusion, in short, does not transform final judgment losers, in civil or criminal proceedings, into partially prevailing parties.”
Bies was convicted for killing a 10-year-old boy who refused to perform a sex act. The ruling is Bobby v. Bies.
ABAJournal.com: “Lawyer for Death-Row Inmate Faces Skeptical Justices”