I’ve spent the last few days in Paris immersed in the work of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty—collaborating with other members the Coalition’s Steering Committee to review our accomplishments over the past year and to define our countries and issues of focus for the next three years, and attending workshops to prepare for a four-year project funded by the European Union to combat the death penalty in several African countries and other countries at risk of resuming executions. But when I get on the plane for Minneapolis Wednesday, it will be time to switch gears and think about the connections between The Advocates’ involvement with the international abolitionist movement and death penalty issues closer to home.
On Wednesday, December 11, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral argument in a death penalty case called McKinney v. Arizona. With pro bono assistance from Dechert LLP, The Advocates for Human Rights and the World Coalition submitted an amicus curiae brief in support of the petitioner, James McKinney, who was sentenced to death in Arizona for his involvement in two 1991 murders. McKinney was 23 years old at the time of the crimes.
We work to limit the scope of the death penalty
The Advocates, like the World Coalition, is opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances. In some countries, however, we don’t expect immediate abolition of the death penalty. As an interim measure, we try to limit the scope and applicability of the death penalty, consistent with international human rights standards.
Article 6, paragraph 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognizes that “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” In the context of the death penalty, this language means that a person charged with a crime eligible for the death penalty must receive a fair trial and the jury (or judge) must consider all relevant evidence before deciding whether to sentence the person to death.
My Steering Committee colleague Connie Numbi, who represents the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) in Uganda, notes that several East African countries such as Tanzania and Botswana have a mandatory death penalty. If a person is convicted of certain crimes, the death sentence is automatic. No judge or jury hears evidence about the nature of the crime, why the person committed it, or what “mitigating” factors might warrant a sentence other than death.
The death penalty is arbitrary if the defense can’t present evidence about the defendant’s personal circumstances and the circumstances of the offense
The Human Rights Committee (the UN body in charge of interpreting the Covenant) has explained that any mandatory imposition of the death penalty violates Article 6, paragraph 1 because it is arbitrary:
In all cases involving the application of the death penalty, the personal circumstances of the offender and the particular circumstances of the offence, including its specific attenuating elements must be considered by the sentencing court. Hence, mandatory death sentences that leave domestic courts with no discretion on whether or not to designate the offence as a crime entailing the death penalty, and on whether or not to issue the death sentence in the particular circumstances of the offender, are arbitrary in nature.
Similarly, Article 6, paragraph 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that, “In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes,” The Human Rights Committee has explained that under this provision, the death penalty “must not be applied except for the most serious crimes, and then only in the most exceptional cases and under the strictest limits.”
McKinney never had a fair chance to present evidence of his personal circumstances
Which brings us to McKinney’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court. A jury found McKinney guilty of murder, but at the time, under Arizona law, a judge was responsible for deciding the appropriate sentence. McKinney’s attorneys presented evidence to the judge about McKinney’s horrific childhood, including evidence McKinney has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from his abuse. The judge accepted McKinney’s PTSD diagnosis but did not consider it in deciding on the sentence. Indeed, under Arizona law at the time, the judge was prohibited from taking into account any evidence of mitigating factors that were not causally connected to the crime.
An appellate court ruled that the judge was wrong to reject the PTSD evidence. The State of Arizona then took up the case with the Arizona Supreme Court, asking that court to review the sentencing decision. McKinney argued that he was entitled to a new sentencing hearing, particularly because in the interim the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that juries—not judges—must make any factual findings relevant to deciding whether to sentence someone to death.
But the Arizona Supreme Court disagreed. It decided to conduct an independent review of McKinney’s sentence. In so doing, it said that McKinney’s conviction had been finalized before that Supreme Court ruling. And it then went on to look at the trial transcript and make its own sentencing decision, concluding that the mitigating evidence wasn’t sufficient to warrant a punishment other than death.
McKinney takes his case to the Supreme Court
Before the U.S. Supreme Court, McKinney will argue that the Arizona Supreme Court made two mistakes. First, when it reopened the case, the Arizona Supreme Court should have applied the current law, requiring a jury (rather than a judge) to make the factual determinations relevant to a death sentence. Second, the Arizona Supreme Court should have given McKinney the opportunity for a new hearing to present mitigating evidence, rather than simply reading the trial transcript.
Our friend of the court brief: The U.S. Supreme Court helped build a consensus under international human rights law that people like McKinney must have a fair chance to present all their mitigating evidence
Our amicus brief sheds light on the connection between Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—a treaty the United States ratified in 1992—and McKinney’s case. Our brief notes that the Human Rights Committee’s comments rejecting the mandatory death penalty are rooted in a consensus that began with a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, which ruled that a mandatory death penalty law in North Carolina was unconstitutional.
Our Supreme Court’s reasoning in that case gradually helped build a consensus among national courts and international human rights mechanisms favoring individualized sentencing in capital cases. In 2009, for example, in a case that FHRI initiated, the Ugandan Supreme Court struck down that country’s mandatory death penalty for murder, and earlier this year the Ugandan parliament adopted a law eliminating several provisions rendering the death penalty mandatory. Kenya’s Supreme Court followed Uganda’s lead and struck down the mandatory death penalty in 2017. Malaysia is also taking steps to limit the mandatory nature of the death penalty.
Our brief cites the Ugandan Supreme Court as well as a long line of Human Rights Committee rulings recognizing that under Article 6, a person has the right to “individualized sentencing” where defense counsel may present evidence about the defendant’s personal circumstances as well as the circumstances of the crime.
Our brief also points out that the U.S. Federal Government has repeatedly assured the Human Rights Committee that in capital cases “the jury must be able to consider and give effect to any mitigating evidence that a defendant proffers.”
By the time I get off the plane, court-watchers will be sharing their spin on the oral argument, and by the end of the week, the Court will probably release a transcript I can read to get caught up. And then it will be a matter of waiting to see whether the Court will build on the foundation of international human rights law that it helped lay to ensure that McKinney finally has a chance to tell a jury his story.
Amy Bergquist is Senior Staff Attorney with the International Justice Program. She is Vice President of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and represents The Advocates on the Coalition’s Steering Committee.