Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will hear Cullen v. Pinholster (09-1088), reviewing California’s federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on whether or not the death penalty should be reinstated for convicted murderer Scott Pinholster

Importance of mitigating factor was the key to Ninth Circuit’s decision.

The Ninth Circuit nixed capital punishment for Pinholster, opining that Pinholster’s attorney failed to give crucial evidence of mental illness during the penalty phase of Pinholser’s trial for killing two men during a burglary. (Read the Ninth Circuit opinion here.) 

The Ninth Circuit’s reasoning?  If the jury had the chance to hear this mitigating factor, then Pinholser might not have been sentenced to death in the first place. 

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court may reverse the federal appeals court.  

Officially, the High Court will be deciding this single legal issue: [w]hether it is appropriate under 28 USC §2254 for a federal court to conclude that a state court’s rejection of a claim was unreasonable in light of facts that an applicant could have but never alleged in state court; and (2) what standard of review is applicable to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.

Unofficially, Scott Pinholster may still be punished with death, despite unfairness during his trial that a federal appellate court and countless others see as serious procedural harm.  

Form over Substance?

Mentally ill people have already been protected by the U.S. Supreme Court from the death penalty as being cruel and unusual punishment. Now, will that same High Court allow mental illness bar to be circumvented by a form over substance situation?

It’s a sign that this may well happen – since the High Court has decided to hear the case. Scary, isn’t it?