U.S. Supreme Court Agrees to Hear AZ Death Penalty Case Again – First Such Decision by SCOTUS This Term 

PC: David
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By The Vanguard Staff

WASHINGTON, DC – The U.S. Supreme Court last Wednesday granted certiorari in Thornell v. Jones, its first death penalty case to be heard at oral argument in the 2023 term—the first time this term SCOTUS has done that in 38 prisoner-petitioners cases, according to a statement by the Death Penalty Information Center.

DPIC added, “Unlike most death penalty cases that seek Supreme Court review, the petitioner here is the state of Arizona, which asks the Court to reverse the Ninth Circuit’s grant of relief for death-sentenced prisoner Danny Lee Jones. The Ninth Circuit held that Mr. Jones demonstrated ineffective assistance of counsel at his sentencing phase under Strickland v. Washington (1984).”

Jones, explained DPIC, was convicted of the 1992 murders of Robert Weaver and his seven-year-old daughter Tisha, and attempted murder of Weaver’s grandmother Katherine Gumina. According to court documents, added DPIC, “Jones and Weaver had been drinking and using methamphetamines in Weaver’s garage when they got into an argument, after which Mr. Jones attacked Mr. Weaver and his family members.”

At sentencing, “Mr. Jones’ attorney Lee Novak presented a family witness and a court-appointed psychiatrist who testified about Mr. Jones’ childhood health problems, abusive biological father and stepfather, and history of drug and alcohol dependency. 

“Testimony showed that growing up, Mr. Jones suffered head trauma to the point of losing consciousness on at least seven occasions, including two falls from roofs as an adolescent. Mr. Jones also served in the Marines, where he was once hospitalized after a mugging that left him unconscious on the side of the road,” said DPIC.

The appeal noted “Mr. Novak did not present evidence in his possession that Mr. Jones had received treatment for mood disorders, attempted suicide five years before the murders, spent time in a mental institution, and suffered multiple neurochemical deficiencies. Mr. Novak did not present any additional family witnesses and the court-appointed expert conducted only a ‘short and cursory evaluation.’” 

DPIC said, “The expert recommended further neurologic testing such as a CAT scan, MRI, and EEG based on ‘very strong evidence (of) traumatic brain injury and…organic neurologic dysfunctions’ that could explain Mr. Jones’ behavior on the day of the murders, and Mr. Novak requested a continuance to conduct the testing. The trial court denied the request.”

Additionally, added the Death Penalty Information Center, “district court denied Mr. Jones relief after an evidentiary hearing but was reversed by a unanimous panel of Ninth Circuit judges, who held that Mr. Novak was constitutionally ineffective by failing to secure a defense mental health expert or seek neurological testing before sentencing. 

“The Ninth Circuit denied a request for rehearing en banc and reconsideration by the full court over the dissents of ten judges. Arizona now argues that the Ninth Circuit panel failed to give deference to the district court’s ruling against Mr. Jones and improperly weighed the aggravating and mitigating factors in violation of Strickland. 

“Mr. Jones argues that Mr. Novak’s failure to uncover and present key evidence is undisputed, the Ninth Circuit faithfully applied the Strickland standard, and Arizona has not shown that any other courts have ruled differently in similar cases.”

DPIC writes, “This is the second time that the Supreme Court has considered Mr. Jones’ case. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Jones after a district court held that he had not shown ineffective assistance of counsel and the Ninth Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court issued a summary opinion vacating the judgment and remanding for consideration of whether Mr. Jones’ claims had been procedurally defaulted.”

“(W)e should have taken this case en banc so that the Supreme Court, which has already vacated our judgment once, does not grant certiorari a second time and reverse us,” Judge Mark Bennett wrote on behalf of nine judges in dissent from the denial of rehearing en banc, report DPIC.

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