June 01, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Bobby v. Bies

On June 1, the Supreme Court decided Bobby v. Bies, No. 08-598.

Michael Bies was convicted in Ohio state court in 1992 of the aggravated murder, kidnapping and attempted rape of a 10-year-old boy. In the proceedings to determine his sentence, the jury was instructed to consider evidence of his mild-to-borderline mental retardation as a mitigating factor, but the jury nevertheless recommended a death sentence, which the trial court imposed and the state appellate courts affirmed. Bies sought habeas corpus relief in both state court, which was denied, and in federal court. While the latter petition was pending, the Supreme Court decided Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), holding that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment" bars the execution of mentally retarded offenders. The state indicated its intention to conduct a full hearing on the question of Bies' mental capacity for purposes of applying Atkins, but the federal courts intervened, granting habeas corpus relief and ordering vacation of Bies' death sentence on the ground that his mental retardation had been definitively established as a matter of law in his original appeal and that re-examination of that subject would violate the double-jeopardy clause.

The Supreme Court reversed unanimously. It noted that "the touchstone for double-jeopardy protection in capital-sentencing proceedings is whether there has been an "acquittal," and that no such acquittal had occurred here. Bies had been convicted and sentenced to death, and the state was not attempting to try him again or to increase the original sentence; rather, Bies was trying to vacate that sentence. Nor did principles of claim preclusion prevent re-examination of Bies' mental condition. The issue-preclusion doctrine bars relitigation of decisions that are necessary to the ultimate outcome of a prior proceeding. Here, the state courts' recognition of Bies' mental condition as a mitigating factor was not essential to the death sentence that he received but in fact cut against that sentence, and it did not bar consideration of whether his condition was such as to bar the sentence entirely under standards that were subsequently developed in light of Atkins. As the Court said, "Issue preclusion . . . does not transform final judgment losers, in civil or criminal proceedings, into partially prevailing parties."

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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