Jenkins v. Hutton

Summarized by:

  • Court: United States Supreme Court
  • Area(s) of Law: Criminal Procedure
  • Date Filed: June 19, 2017
  • Case #: 16-1116
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Per Curiam
  • Full Text Opinion

The Sixth Circuit was incorrect in holding that it could review Respondent’s claim, that the trial court violated his due process rights during the penalty phase of his trial, under the miscarriage of justice exception to procedural default.

An Ohio jury convicted Respondent of aggravated murder and found two aggravating circumstances: that Respondent engaged in an attempt to kill two or more persons and that Respondent murdered a person while committing, attempting to commit, or fleeing immediately after kidnapping. During the penalty phase of the trial, the trial court instructed the jury that it could recommend a death sentence only if it unanimously found that the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating factors. The jury recommended death. The Ohio Court of Appeals and Supreme Court affirmed the death sentence. Respondent petitioned for federal habeas relief, arguing that the trial court violated his due process rights during the penalty phase of his trial when it failed to tell the jurors that, when weighing aggravating and mitigating factors, they could consider only the two aggravating factors they found during the guilt phase. However, Respondent did not object to the trial court’s instruction or raise this argument on direct appeal and the District Court held that Respondent’s claim was procedurally defaulted. The Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that notwithstanding the procedural default, it could reach the merits of Respondent’s claim to avoid a fundamental miscarriage of justice. The Sixth Circuit reasoned that Respondent was not eligible for a death sentence because the jury did not make the necessary finding of aggravating circumstances. Also, since the trial court gave no guidance on what to consider as aggravating circumstances, the record did not show that the jury’s recommendation was actually based on review of any valid aggravating circumstances. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Sixth Circuit was incorrect in excusing the default and reaching the merits of Respondent’s claim. First, the jury did find the existence of aggravating circumstances, at the guilt phase of the trial. The jury instruction that Respondent disputes was given at the penalty phase and had no effect on the jury’s determination that aggravating circumstances were present. In addition, the Sixth Circuit should have considered whether a properly instructed jury could have recommended death, not whether the alleged error might have affected the jury’s verdict. REVERSED AND REMANDED. 

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