Supreme Court

Jackson, in First Supreme Court Opinion, Defends Death Row Inmate

In her short, yet searing dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson argues that the court should have granted the petition of an Ohio man sentenced to death after prosecutors hid a key witness' severe intellectual disability from jurors.


Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson released her first opinion since taking office this June—a dissent, arguing in favor of an Ohio death row inmate.

In her dissent, Jackson argued that the court should grant a writ of certiorari in the case of Davel Chinn, an Ohio man convicted of a 1989 murder and sentenced to death. Chinn's lawyers argued that, during Chinn's trial, the state suppressed the fact that a key witness to the crime was severely intellectually disabled. By suppressing this information, they claim that the jury had an overinflated view of the witness's credibility. Jackson's dissent, in this case, offers a glimpse into her possible future rulings on the Supreme Court—and her eagerness to intervene in due process violations.

While seven members of the Court agreed to deny Chinn's petition, Jackson, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, dissented the denial. Jackson argued that several lower courts pinned the outcome of the case on the testimony of Marvin Washington—whose IQ was estimated at only 48. For example, even while denying Chinn's appeal, the Ohio Supreme Court said "if the jury accepted Washington's testimony, the jury was certain to convict [Chinn], but if the jury did not believe Washington, it was certain to acquit [Chinn] of all charges." Yet, Jackson also noted that "when confronted during state postconviction proceedings with the State's suppression of evidence that would have substantially impeached this key witness, the Ohio courts suddenly concluded that evidence was not 'material' enough to have affected the trial."

Further, Jackson argued that the suppression of information about Washington's disability, which "may have affected Washington's ability to remember, perceive fact from fiction, and testify accurately," constitutes a due process violation. To Jackson, this failure is significant enough to grant Chinn's petition—and for Chinn's loss at the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to be reversed.

"Because Chinn's life is on the line, and given the substantial likelihood that the suppressed records would have changed the outcome at trial based on the Ohio courts' own representations…I would summarily reverse to ensure that the Sixth Circuit conducts its materiality analysis under the proper standard," Jackson concluded.

Jackson's first opinion hints at a possible disposition towards interfering in government abuses—at least when it comes to criminal justice. Furthermore, the media attention lavished on this particular decision because it was Jackson's first might shed more light on the abuses and suppression of evidence that often occurs in criminal trials. Preventing the jury from being aware of possibly outcome-changing evidence—particularly in a capital trial—is a massive miscarriage of justice.