Tennessee has a death penalty statute that splits the jury's responsibilities into two parts: phase one is guilt v. innocence; and in cases with a conviction for first-degree murder, there is a second phase, the penalty phase, where the jury decides between life in prison (with parole possible), life without any possibility of parole, and in the most serious cases death. Ohio has a similar statute and it is the second part of Ohio's statute, the penalty part, that is at issue in Bobby v. Mitts. Today the Supreme Court summarily reversed the Sixth Circuit and reinstated the death penalty against Harry Mitts.
Previously, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that jury instructions in this Ohio death penalty case ran against the Supreme Court's decision in Beck v. Alabama, and accordingly the Court of Appeals vacated Mitts’s death sentence. The Sixth Circuit stated that Ohio's statute impermissibly required the jury to first decide whether to “acquit” Mitts of the death penalty before considering mercy and some form of life imprisonment.
In reversing the Sixth Circuit, the Supreme Court found no constitutional violation because the Court reasoned a jury convicted Mitts on two counts of aggravated murder and two counts of attempted murder and they knew that this second phase of the trial involved certain imprisonment of one kind or another. These jurors were specifically instructed that if they did not find that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors—and therefore did not recommend the death penalty—they would choose from two life sentence options. Because the choice did not force the jurors to make a decision upon a mistaken presumption that Mitts could possibly go free, if not given the ultimate penalty, the Court saw no violation. Significantly, the Court drew a distinction between this penalty phase and the choices made by a jury during the guilt v. innocence phase of the trial.