May 02, 2011

Supreme Court Decides Bobby v. Mitts

On May 2, the Supreme Court issued a per curiam decision in Bobby v. Mitts, No. 10-1000, upholding Ohio's jury instructions that require jurors first to reject the death penalty before considering a sentence of life imprisonment.

In 1994, an Ohio jury convicted Harry Mitts on two counts of aggravated murder and two counts of attempted murder.  The jury instructions during the penalty phase of Mitts' trial instructed the jury to proceed in two steps.  First, jurors should impose a death sentence if the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating factors.  Second, if they did not impose a death sentence, jurors should consider if mitigating factors outweighed the aggravating circumstances, and which possible life imprisonment sentence would be appropriate.  Mitts was sentenced to death. 

The Ohio Supreme Court upheld Mitts' conviction, and he then sought federal review under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA).  Mitts argued that by requiring a jury first to find the death penalty inappropriate, Ohio's jury instructions unconstitutionally deprived the jury of a meaningful opportunity to consider a life sentence.  The Sixth Circuit agreed and overturned Mitts' death sentence.

The Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit's decision.  It explained that precedent forbidding jurors in capital trials from considering only the "all-or-nothing" options of conviction for a capital offense or innocence, which encourages convictions, did not apply to the penalty phase of trial.  Because Mitts already had been convicted on four counts of murder and attempted murder, there was no concern that jurors would have thought that a decision "short of death would have resulted in Mitts walking free."  As a result, the Supreme Court reasoned that jurors could be instructed to first consider and reject the penalty of capital punishment before considering life sentences in a capital trial's penalty phase.

The decision was per curiam.

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