Published on: Monday, June 19, 2017

In a per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court held that the Sixth Circuit erred in reaching the merits of a claim under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The claim dealt with a death penalty jury instruction given by an Ohio trial court over 30 years ago. Despite the fact that the jury found that the defendant engaged in two specific aggravated factors during the guilt phase of the trial, the trial court instructed, during the penalty phase, the jury that it could recommend a death sentence only if it unanimously found that the State had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstances [the court failed to indicate that the jury could only consider the two aggravating factors it had found during the guilt phase] outweighed the mitigating factors. The district court found that the petitioner's claim that the trial court failed to provide adequate guidance on the aggravating factors the jury could consider, was procedurally defaulted and refused to reach the merits of the claim. The Sixth Circuit reversed, concluding that notwithstanding the procedural default, the district court could reach the merits of the claim to avoid a fundamental miscarriage of justice. The Supreme Court disagreed with the Sixth Circuit's analysis and conclusions. The Supreme Court stated: "The [Sixth Circuit], in other words, considered whether the alleged error might have affected the jury's verdict, not whether a properly instructed jury could have recommended death." As such, the Sixth Circuit's opinion was reversed and remanded for further opinions consistent with the Supreme Court opinion.

For a copy of the opinion, Jenkins v. Hutton, No. 16-1116, click here.