High court says later-decided case was wrongly used to exempt inmate from death penalty

U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday said a federal appeals court wrongly relied on the high court’s 2017 decision on mental disability when it ruled an Ohio death-row inmate was not eligible for the death penalty.

The per curiam Supreme Court decision sent the case of death-row inmate Danny Hill back to the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to determine whether he was mentally disabled and therefore ineligible for the death penalty. (The Supreme Court opinion begins at page 33 of the PDF.)

The Supreme Court said the 6th Circuit should make the determination based on legal rules in effect when Ohio courts were considering Hill’s case.

Ohio state courts had ruled Hill was not mentally disabled, but the 6th Circuit said those courts had failed to follow clearly established Supreme Court precedent.

The 6th Circuit was supposed to examine clearly established precedent at the time Ohio was considering Hill’s claim, the Supreme Court said. But the 6th Circuit apparently relied on the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision Moore v. Texas, even though it has not yet been decided when Hill’s case was before Ohio courts.

Hill was convicted in 1986 for the torture, rape and murder of a 12-year-old boy. An Ohio appeals court ruled against Hill’s mental disability claim in 2008, and the Ohio Supreme Court denied review in 2009.

The 6th Circuit had said its decision on Hill’s mental disability was based on cases decided before Moore v. Texas, which struck down the standards used by the state of Texas to determine whether an inmate has a mental disability.

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The Supreme Court did not accept that explanation. “In this case,” the Supreme Court said, “no reader of the decision of the Court of Appeals can escape the conclusion that it is heavily based on Moore, which came years after the decisions of the Ohio courts.”

The case is Shoop v. Hill.

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