SCOTUS Rules in Favor of Ohio in Mental Retardation Death Penalty Case

By Kevin Fayle on June 01, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Supreme Court today decided, in the case of Bobby v. Bies, that issue preclusion and the double jeopardy clause did not prevent Ohio from holding a post-conviction hearing on the issue of a defendant's mental retardation. 

The defendant, Michael Bies, was convicted of the brutal murder of a ten year-old boy and sentenced to death.  At the sentencing hearing, the jury considered Bies' mild to borderline mental retardation as a mitigating factor and found that the aggravating factors still warranted a death sentence.
Bies' sentence came before the Supreme Court's determination in Atkins v. Virginia that the execution of mentally retarded individuals runs afoul of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, and before the Ohio Supreme Court laid out the framework for enforcing Atkins' constitutional prohibition in State v. Lott.

Those cases came down while Bies' habeas petition was before the US district court.  The district court stayed that action while Bies' pursued an Atkins claim in Ohio state court.  Bies' moved for summary judgment, arguing that the courts had already determined the issue of his mental retardation, but the Ohio court found that Atkins and Lott had materially altered the mental retardation framework.  Under the new framework, the court ruled, Bies' mental retardation was still at issue.

Instead of proceeding with a state hearing to determine the retardation issue, Bies went ahead with his federal habeas petition, arguing that the doctrine of issue preclusion, as embodied in the double jeopardy clause, prevented the state from holding a hearing to determine whether he qualified as mentally retarded since his mental retardation had already been considered as a mitigating factor in his sentencing.

The district court and the Sixth Circuit agreed with Bies, but the Supreme Court reversed.  First of all the Court noted, in an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that the double jeopardy clause did not apply in the core constitutional sense.  The case did not arise out of the state's attempt to retry Bies or increase his punishment, but was instead an attempt at postconviction relief by Bies himself.

The Court then addressed Bies' issue preclusion argument, and found it wanting.  The Court determined that the mental retardation issue was not a necessary compent of the judgment handed down since, according to the precedent in effect at the time of sentencing, no one mitigating or aggravating factor was essential to the balancing test performed by the jury.

Moreover, Ginsburg wrote, even if the issue preclusion requirements had been met, the decision in Atkins would have justified an exception to the rule.

Bies is entitled to pursue his case, the Court concluded, but the task of determining whether or not he satisfied the requirements for a mental retardation determination falls to the state courts and the application of the Atkins-Lott framework. 

See Also:
Bobbie v. Bies (Volokh Conspiracy)
Supreme Court Center (FindLaw)
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