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Supreme Court rejects Arizona killer's request for re-sentence in brutal double murder

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Danny Lee Jones, who has been on death row in Arizona since 1993, will not be retried even though his attorney did not do enough to elicit sympathy at the sentencing hearing. (File photo by Haley Smilow/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a lower court's ruling and ordered a new sentencing hearing for an Arizona death row inmate who strangled a 7-year-old girl and beat her father to death with a baseball bat in 1992.

Lawyers for Danny Lee Jones, who was convicted of the brutal 1993 Bullhead City murders, argued that his death sentence was unfair because his attorney failed to present evidence of his own childhood trauma and brain injuries – mitigating circumstances that could have led to a lesser sentence.

The state's highest court rejected that argument, but a federal appeals court agreed that Jones did not have the effective counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.

The six justices of the U.S. Supreme Court who belong to the conservative majority disagreed. The court's three liberals dissented.

To obtain a new conviction, the court would have to agree that it is “sufficiently likely” that the defendant would not have been sentenced to death anyway, wrote Justice Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court.

But, Alito wrote, the federal appeals court “downplayed the serious aggravating circumstances at hand and exaggerated the strength of the mitigating circumstances, which differed very little from the evidence presented at the verdict.”

Jones is one of 112 inmates currently facing execution in Arizona, although no one has been executed in the state since November 2022. In all three executions this year, correctional officials had difficulty placing the IV tubes needed to administer the lethal injections.

Two weeks after taking office in January 2023, Democratic Governor Katie Hobbs suspended executions pending an independent investigation, citing the state's “history of poorly conducted executions.”

She appointed retired Judge David Duncan to head an independent commission to review the state's execution process. In mid-May of this year, Attorney General Kris Mayes assured the Maricopa County prosecutor that executions would resume in the first quarter of 2025, provided Duncan completed his work.

Jones' case dates back to 1992, when he and his friend Robert Weaver spent a day together drinking and taking drugs.

According to court documents, Jones had just become aware of Weaver's gun collection, valued at about $2,000, and decided to steal it. Jones beat Weaver to death with a baseball bat. He also used the same bat to smash the skull of Weaver's grandmother, Katherine Gumina, who later died from her injuries.

Weaver's daughter Tisha witnessed the attack on her great-grandmother and tried to hide from Jones.

At trial, Jones was sentenced to two death sentences for the murders and to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for the next 25 years for the attempted murder of Gumina.

The court found four mitigating circumstances that could have led to a reduction in sentence: long-term drug abuse, drug and alcohol abuse at the time of the murders, head trauma, and child abuse. However, the court did not find any of these circumstances sufficient to spare Jones the death penalty.

Jones challenged the verdicts on the grounds that his public defender had never tried a capital felony case before and should have obtained a psychological evaluation before sentencing, which might have helped the defense make a stronger case at sentencing.

The Death Penalty Information Center argues that the quality of representation of a defendant in a capital crime “can mean the difference between life and death.”

In 2021, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, known for its liberal leanings, ruled that Jones' attorney's performance fell “below an objective standard of reasonableness” and “below prevailing professional standards.”

The federal appeals court argued that the defense attorney failed to conduct adequate mental health tests or present enough possible mitigating evidence. The court affirmed its ruling in 2022.

Arizona appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held oral arguments in April.

The opinion, written by Alito, said the 9th Circuit incorrectly applied a legal analysis of bias in evaluating Jones' claims for “mitigating circumstances.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Elena Kagan. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the court's third liberal justice, filed a separate dissenting opinion.

“Courts must consider all the evidence – the good and the bad – and weigh the evidence that aggravates the prosecution against all the available mitigating evidence. The majority unnecessarily goes further and rebalances itself,” Sotomayor wrote.

Since 1937, the average death row inmate in Arizona has spent 12 years on death row, according to the Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry.

Anna Harden

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