Supreme Court rules mental capacity hearing does not violate double jeopardy

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] issued opinions in two cases on Monday. In Bobby v. Bies [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report], the Court ruled [opinion, PDF] unanimously that a post-conviction hearing to determine the mental competency of a capital defendant convicted before the Court's 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia [opinion, PDF], which prohibits the execution of mentally retarded persons, does not violate the Double Jeopardy [Cornell LII backgrounder] clause. In so doing, the Court overruled the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled [opinion, PDF] that the Ohio Supreme Court [official website] had definitively decided the issue of Bies' competency, and therefore he was entitled to a life sentence under Atkins. Finding that the federal courts had "derailed" state court proceedings intended to determine the validity of Bies' claim under Atkins, the Court said that the Sixth Circuit erred in finding that Bies was entitled to life sentence:

At the time Bies was sentenced and on direct appeal, [Penry v. Lynaugh], not Atkins, was this Court’s guiding decision. Under Penry, no single mitigator or aggravator was determinative of the judgment. Instead, the dispositive issue, correctly comprehended by the Ohio courts, was whether "the aggravating circumstances outweigh[ed] the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt."
Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Court also ruled [opinion, PDF] 7-2 in CSX Transportation v. Hensley [docket] that the Tennessee Court of Appeals [official website] misapplied the Court's ruling in Norfolk & Western R. Co. v. Ayers [opinion text] in holding that an asbestosis sufferer may recover for pain and suffering related to fear of contracting lung cancer without specific jury instructions on the applicable standard. Finding that the trial court had inappropriately excluded jury instructions necessary to determine liability under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) [text], the Court said:
the fact that cancer claims could "evoke raw emotions" is a powerful reason to instruct the jury on the proper legal standard. Giving the instruction on this point is particularly important in the FELA context. That is because of the volume of pending asbestos claims and also because the nature of those claims enhances the danger that a jury, without proper instructions, could award emotional-distress damages based on slight evidence of a plaintiff’s fear of contracting cancer.
The majority's opinion was given per curiam, with Justices Ginsburg and John Paul filing separate dissents.

 

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