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Discretion in the Criminal Justice System

      Discretion is arguably the most important tool in a criminal justice professional’s arsenal. Without it, we would be robots. Even the ...

An Observation of A Typical Murder Trial

Arizona Department of Corrections
James Erin McKinney

The trial this article is focused on took place on September 6th, 2018 at the Supreme Court of Arizona in downtown Phoenix. It was an independent review of a James Erin McKinney’s capital punishment that was administered for McKinney’s two counts of first-degree murder. During the sentencing phase of the original trial, McKinney was given the death penalty as there were a multitude of mitigating circumstances. One of the legal theories that the defense originally attempted to use was that McKinney suffered from PTSD, however, this was found to not contribute because of the calculation of the crimes committed. 

Around February 1991, McKinney and his half-brother Charles Michael Hedlund, who’s original trial was conducted alongside McKinney’s, burglarized four homes in Arizona. They murdered two of their victims, shooting both of them in the head. One of the victims, Christine Mertens, was beat, stabbed, and eventually shot in the head for $120. The duo’s other victim was Jim McClain, a sixty-five-year-old man. Jim McClain was found laying in his bed, shot in the back of the head. Both men received the death penalty and were denied post-conviction relief. In an appellate review of an appeal to the Ninth Circuit that took place in 1996, it was discovered that an unconstitutional nexus test was grounds for a review. This is the reason for the independent review, as Arizona was faced with the task of determining if it should change the sentence from death to a lesser sentence. 

The proceeding began with the defense attorney, Sharmila Roy, arguing on behalf of the defendant as the various Justices asked her questions. The questions were generally about the prior case conducting an independent review with Sharmila Roy arguing that not all of the circumstances were taken into consideration. Justice Gould asked Ms. Roy why there should be such an emphasis placed on the PTSD litigator as the aggravators were already proven to be so intense. Ms. Roy answered that there actually was no physical evidence placing Mr. McKinney in the house at all for the murder of Christine Mertans. She argued that there were no fingerprints in the house and that the bullet did not match his weapon. Justice Gould answered that it doesn’t matter as the guilt opinion of the previous courts definitively places him at the house. Ms. Roy goes on to argue that because this is a independent review, it should be brought up as well. During the next phase of the questioning, PTSD is brought up again as she argues that McKinney was emotionally immature and incompetent of conducting daily life objectives. This led to substance abuse and the violent crimes being discussed. Justice Gould responded that there really is no clear, distinct, connection between PTSD and holding a woman down and shooting her in the back of the head. Ms. Roy argued that there is no undeniable proof that he shot either the female victim, Christine Mertans, or the male victim, Jim McClain. Justice Pelander takes the room and again brings up that they are not there to discuss McKinney’s guilt. Ms. Roy argued that they are discussing whether this man receives the death penalty, which I agreed with and believe that they should be able to revisit the original guilt conviction. She once again affirms that McKinney was emotionally immature and that it should be heavily taken into consideration. At this point the prosecution is able to take the podium for questioning by the Justices. Jeff Sparks, Assistant Attorney General for the State of Arizona, started off his opening arguments by stating that the second decision should be used as a road map for this trial. Headed by Chief Justice Bales, they then begin to discuss the evidence that does place McKinney at the scene of the crime. McKinney was in possession of stolen property from one of the victim’s homes, as well as a yellow glove that was brought up in the original trial to be part of a set of yellow gloves that McKinney used when carrying out these crimes. There was also evidence of McKinney states while brandishing a handgun that if anyone was in the residence while they burglarized it, they would be killed. The prosecution then explains that there was no record of PTSD being a factor and can be ruled out by the fact that the murder and burglaries were planned out in detail and that McKinney did what he said he was going to do. Justice Pelander then asked Mr. Sparks if there was any citable source that could be brought in to shape a resentencing, to which Mr. Sparks states that there is not. Mr. Sparks states that it would like the State to consider the child abuse and PTSD factors, but that the sentence should not be altered. 

Overall this trial was slow and deliberate. It was a lot less hectic then another case that I attended involving a DUI. It was a misdemeanor court, and it was very fast paced. While attending that hearing I actually saw multiple cases discussed in front of the judge. One of these was a small amount of marijuana possession by an individual and it seemed to take mere seconds. The judge read his papers and sentenced the individual to a few hours of community service. It seemed so fast that you could blink, and it was over. Watching a Supreme Court individual review was of a vastly different nature. The questions were allowed to be explored and things were more carefully explained. Of course, these are professional litigators and Justices of the highest sort. Overall, I believe the experience, the writing of this paper included, was a very beneficial one for my studies. The trial seemed fair regarding the law and biases aside, I do believe there was enough evidence in support of these men receiving the death penalty. I do not believe there was sufficient evidence on the defenses side to overturn the original decision. This was also very eye-opening to see the process of a trial on this level.  It seems there are so many moving parts gliding effortlessly along. There was very little hesitation from either side, and everything was almost seamless. I believe that all courts should take note from the organization at this level. When I was in the military, I was a witness in a court martial proceeding. The trial was sort of sporadic and confusing at times. The lawyers switch jobs every month on a rotation for prosecution and defense, so none are ever as proficient as could be if they had a specialty. The “judges” presiding over the trial are merely high-ranking members on post at the time and most have very little, if any, legal expertise. Watching Chief Justice Bales ask the right questions and clarify things was a very inspirational experience compared to the absolute dumpster fire that was this particular Court Martial that was merely a misdemeanor. 

The court process is often tedious but practical. It separates man from beast and organizes the way we approach the criminal element that is never going to disappear from humanity. Mens Rea will never become a thing of the past and, therefore, the trial process will never fade as well. The only thing that we can do is adjust fire and make changes within the criminal justice system to offer every single member of society the fairness and impartiality they deserve, no matter the crime committed. Witnessing this trial showed me how important the process is in society and was highly inspirational in my pursuit to become an agent of change in this system that all should be so passionate about. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best when he said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”