This morning, at 11:00 EST, oral arguments will begin before the United States Supreme Court on whether or not a federal appeals court (the 6th Circuit) interfered with a state court death penalty case where the defendant was found to be mentally retarded. And while that sounds very procedural and legalistic, whether or not Michael Bies will be executed by the State of Ohio is the real issue here.

The case, Bobby v. Bies (08-598), has the Solicitor General of Ohio, Benjamin C. Mizer, arguing for the warden. Professor John Blume, of Cornell Law School, is advocating for Michael Bies.

It’s Already Been Decided that the Death Penalty Cannot Be Imposed Upon Mentally Retarded Individuals

Back in 2002, the Supreme Court already held that the execution of mentally retarded individuals violates the due process provisions of the Eighth Amendment (Atkins v. Virginia). Today, the High Court is looking at double jeopardy protections. Specifically, in the Bies case, the focus will be whether or not double jeopardy protects a defendant at a state (not federal) post-conviction hearing where mental competency is being assessed pursuant to Atkins, when the issue of the defendant’s “borderline mental retardation” had already been recognized earlier, by the state supreme court.

The Underlying Case

Over fifteen years ago, in 1992, Michael Bies was sentenced to death by an Ohio court for the murder of a ten-year-old boy. Like in Florida, the adjudication of guilt was followed by a consideration of the just penalty. During Ohio’s penalty phase of his trial, Michael Bies’ counsel presented mitigating evidence involving expert testimony by a psychologist that Bies was mildly to borderline mentally retarded based upon his IQ scores.

The Ohio Supreme Court recognized Bies’ “borderline mental retardation” as a mitigating factor, but still found that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating factors. The Ohio high court affirmed his death sentence.

Bies entered the federal system via a petition for habeas corpus based upon the Eighth Amendment, i.e, that his mental retardation prohibited the death penalty. Following Atkins v. Virginia, the federal district court directed Bies to return to state court to seek relief.

Bies did so, arguing that double jeopardy now precluded the state from relitigating his mental capacity. Ohio appealed, the Sixth Circuit affirmed, and the Supreme Court granted cert.

To read briefs in this case, go here.
To read the opinion in Atkins v. Virginia, go here.