Honorable Steven Douglas Sheldon, Judge No. CR1991-090926 (B)
Independent Review of Capital Sentence SENTENCE AFFIRMED
Brnovich, Arizona Attorney General, Dominic E. Draye,
Solicitor General, Lacey Stover Gard, Chief Counsel, Capital
Litigation Section, Jeffrey L. Sparks (argued), Assistant
Attorney General, Phoenix, Attorneys for State of Arizona
Sharmila Roy (argued), Laveen, Attorney for James Erin
JUSTICE GOULD authored the opinion of the Court, in which
CHIEF JUSTICE BALES, VICE CHIEF JUSTICE BRUTINEL and JUSTICES
PELANDER, TIMMER, BOLICK, and JUDGE VÁSQUEZ [*] joined.
We previously affirmed James Erin McKinney's two death
sentences on independent review. State v. McKinney
(McKinney I), 185 Ariz. 567, 587 (1996). However, in
McKinney v. Ryan (McKinney V), 813 F.3d 798, 804,
823-24 (9th Cir. 2015) (en banc), the Ninth Circuit Court of
Appeals held that McKinney I applied an
unconstitutional "causal nexus" test to
McKinney's mitigation evidence. We subsequently granted
the State's motion to conduct a new independent review of
McKinney's death sentences and, following such review, we
affirm both sentences.
In March 1991, McKinney and his half-brother, Charles Michael
Hedlund, burglarized the home of Christine Mertens.
McKinney I, 185 Ariz. at 572. Inside the residence,
McKinney beat Mertens and stabbed her several times before
holding her face-down on the floor and shooting her in the
back of the head. Id. Two weeks later, the brothers
burglarized the home of sixty-five-year-old Jim McClain and
shot him in the back of the head while he slept in his bed.
Id. The cases were consolidated for trial, and a
jury found McKinney guilty of first degree murder as to both
During the sentencing phase, the trial court found several
aggravating and mitigating circumstances. See infra
¶¶ 7-9, 15-16. After determining that the
mitigating circumstances were not sufficiently substantial to
call for leniency, the court sentenced McKinney to death for
both murders. McKinney I, 185 Ariz. at 571.
We affirmed McKinney's convictions and sentences upon
independent review. Id. at 587. McKinney
subsequently filed a petition for habeas corpus, which the
federal district court denied. McKinney v. Ryan,
2009 WL 2437238 (D. Ariz. 2009). On appeal, the Ninth Circuit
reversed and remanded the case to the federal district court
with instructions to grant McKinney's writ of habeas
corpus "unless the [S]tate, within a reasonable period,
either corrects the constitutional error in his death
sentence or vacates the sentence and imposes a lesser
sentence consistent with law." Id. at 827.
Following the Ninth Circuit's reversal in McKinney
V, the State requested this Court to conduct a new
independent review. McKinney opposed that motion, arguing
that in light of Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584
(2002), he is entitled to a new sentencing trial before a
jury. We disagree. Independent review is warranted here
because McKinney's case was "final" before the
decision in Ring. See State v. Styers, 227 Ariz.
186, 187-88 ¶¶ 5-6 (2011) (holding that
"[b]ecause Styers had exhausted available appeals, his
petition for certiorari had been denied, and the mandate had
issued almost eight years before Ring was decided,
his case was final, and he therefore is not entitled to have
his case reconsidered in light of Ring").
In conducting our independent review in pre-Ring
cases like this, we examine "the trial court's
findings of aggravation and mitigation and the propriety of
the death sentence," and determine whether the
defendant's proffered mitigation "is sufficiently
substantial to warrant leniency in light of the existing
aggravation." A.R.S. § 13-755(A); see
Styers, 227 Ariz. at 188 ¶ 7. We must consider and
weigh all mitigation evidence regardless of whether it bears
a causal nexus to the underlying murders. State v.
Newell,212 Ariz. 389, 405 ¶ 82 (2006); see
also Eddings v. Oklahoma,455 U.S. 104, 112 (1982)
(requiring sentencer to consider all relevant mitigating
evidence). However, the lack of "a causal connection may
be considered in assessing the quality and strength of the
mitigation evidence." Newell, 212 Ariz. ...