Justices affirm Chandler killer’s death sentence The Chandler Arizonan

Justices affirm Chandler killer’s death sentence

Justices affirm Chandler  killer’s death sentence
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By Kevin Reagan
Arizonan Staff Writer

The U.S. Supreme Court last week upheld the death sentence of an Arizona man who went on a month-long crime spree in 1991 and murdered two Chandler residents. 

In a 5-4 split, a majority of the court’s justices denied James McKinney’s request for a re-sentencing. A Maricopa County judge sentenced him to death in 1993.

McKinney filed a petition in 2018, asking the courts to allow a jury to determine his fate and not a judge.

The trial court should have considered McKinney’s traumatic childhood as a mitigating factor for his crimes, the defendant argued, before sentencing him to death.

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled juries should decide whether a defendant’s crimes warrant capital punishment – opening the door for inmates like McKinney to seek review of their cases.

But the court’s conservative bloc rejected McKinney’s petition, finding that its 2002 ruling does not apply to his case.

Writing for the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh highlighted how McKinney’s case became final in 1996 – several years before its 2002 ruling – and had already been affirmed by the Arizona Supreme Court.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg voted with the court’s other liberal-leaning judges to reverse the Arizona Supreme Court’s judgment.

When the state court reviewed the aggravating and mitigating factors of McKinney’s case in 2018, Ginsburg wrote in her dissenting opinion, it subjected itself to new precedents set by the Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling.

Shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision was released, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich praised the ruling as a victory for the families of McKinney’s victims.

“It’s been nearly three decades since he brutally murdered two innocent Arizonans,” Brnovich wrote in a statement. “Today is a step forward in ensuring justice is carried out for victims and their families.”

The court’s narrow decision does little to change McKinney’s place on death row, which is where he’s been for the last 27 years.

McKinney and his half-brother, Charles Hedlund, were convicted of committing a series of residential burglaries around Chandler.

Their first target was 40-year-old Christene Mertens, who managed to scare McKinney and Hedlund away during their first burglary attempt on Feb. 28, 1991.

The brothers returned to her Chandler home a few days later after someone told them Mertens kept thousands of dollars hidden in an orange juice container. Mertens was home alone at the time the burglars barged in and attacked her.

She was beaten, stabbed, and shot in the head.

The woman’s son later found her dead in the living room. Her home had been ransacked and the burglars only got away with $120, court records show.

A couple weeks later, the two burglars snuck into the home of 65-year-old Jim McClain. Hedlund and McKinney rummaged through the retiree’s home before shooting him in the head with a sawed-off shotgun.

After McKinney’s arrest, a psychologist diagnosed him as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the memories of his “horrific” childhood. McKinney’s judge determined his PTSD diagnosis was not connected to his crimes.

Arizona law at that time barred the judge from considering it as mitigating evidence.

Hedlund also tried using his dysfunctional childhood as a reason not to execute him. The strategy failed and Hedlund was sentenced to death row.

It’s unclear when or if McKinney or Hedlund will ever be sentenced to death, since Arizona has not executed anyone since 2014. Brnovich’s office announced last summer Arizona may resume executions after resolving a lawsuit over the state’s lethal injection drugs. 

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