Pennsylvania Death Penalty Update: PA Supreme Court approves procedure for litigating Atkins mental retardation issues in death penalty cases

Filed under: Criminal Law, Death Penalty Cases, News Tags: , by Steven F. Fairlie @ December 22, 2011

In a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court case, Commonwealth v. Sanchez, the court declared that juries will have to rule when a defendant in a death penalty proceeding wants to argue that he is mentally disabled and therefore ineligible for execution.

The high court upheld the death penalty for Abraham Sanchez Jr., who was convicted of the May 2007 random shooting death of an elderly man, Ray Diener, on his doorstep in Elizabethtown, PA. The 69-page opinion handed down by Chief Justice Ronald Castille documented how Sanchez and three others ended up at Diener’s house in a random search for a home to burglarize or a car to break into.  

One of the men noticed Diener inside his home, so they stopped and rang the doorbell. After Diener went to the door, another man said their car had broken down and asked to use the phone. After Diener returned with a phone, Sanchez pointed a handgun at him, there was a struggle and Sanchez shot Diener three times before he and the other men fled. Diener’s wife, who went outside after hearing his screams, returned inside, locked the doors and called police. Sanchez told a witness he did the shooting “for fun,” according to the opinion. Sanchez was convicted of first-degree murder, robbery and conspiracy.

In capital cases there are two phases, one to determine guilt and another to determine punishment. After he was found guilty, Sanchez had his subsequent penalty trial, where he requested an Atkins determination before jury selection. An “Atkins determination” comes from the U.S. Supreme Court case, Atkins v. Virginia, where the Supreme Court held that execution of the mentally retarded violates the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Therefore, an Atkins determination rests upon whether or not the convicted is eligible for capital punishment. His request was denied and his death penalty trial proceeded.

During this trial, witnesses described how Sanchez was abused at home and picked on at school. His sister said when she asked him why he doesn’t show love, “He said he doesn’t know what love is.” Despite the defense’s arguments that Sanchez should get life in prison because of his age and background, at age 20, he was sentenced to death by a jury in March 2009.

On appeal, one of several certified questions was whether the trial court erred in permitting the jury to decide at the penalty phase whether Sanchez was mentally retarded and, therefore, exempt from the death penalty pursuant to Atkins. The question was answered in the negative. The justices’ ruling means jurors will have to unanimously agree that the defendant qualifies to avoid execution under Atkins.

In the new decision, the Pennsylvania court said jurors should rule on the issue before deciding if aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors, the process by which they determine if capital punishment is warranted. The justices had previously ruled on the standards by which a defendant would be considered mentally retarded, but this was the first time they laid out procedures for how to address the issue at trial.

The high court put the burden of proof on defendants under a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, meaning the proposition is more likely true than not true. It said placing the burden on prosecutors would give defendants less incentive to cooperate with psychiatric evaluations or help produce friends and family members who might shed light on their mental states.

In dissent, two justices said that the decision on mental retardation should be made before trial by a judge, as Sanchez argued, but they agreed with the decision to uphold his Lancaster County death sentence. The majority opinion said judges will be allowed to make such rulings, if the parties agree.

The decision about when a defendant must notify prosecutors that he intends to raise a mental disability claim was left up to the court’s Criminal Procedural Rules Committee. While the decision may be vulnerable to an appeal in federal court, for now at least, Sanchez devises a procedure for implementing the Atkins decision in Pennsylvania death penalty cases.  

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