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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Supreme Court rules for death row inmate in Arizona

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Wednesday will allow the death row inmate at the center of the case to press his argument in state court that he is entitled to a new sentencing hearing.

By Adam Liptak

The Supreme Court earlier this week ruled in favor of an inmate in Arizona who was sentenced to death by a jury that was not told that a life sentence would ensure that he remained in prison for the rest of his days.

The vote was 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joining the court’s three liberal members — Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson — to form a majority.

The ruling will allow the inmate, John Montenegro Cruz, to press his argument in state court that he is entitled to a new sentencing hearing at which jurors would be informed that any life sentence they imposed would not include the possibility of parole.

Cruz was convicted of the 2003 murder of Patrick Hardesty, a Tucson police officer. At his trial in 2005, his lawyers tried to inform the jury that he would not be eligible for parole were he to receive a life sentence. A 1994 Supreme Court decision, Simmons v. South Carolina, had ruled that capital defendants have a constitutional right to do so.

The trial judge refused to tell the fact to the jury, ruling that the 1994 decision did not apply to Arizona’s sentencing scheme. The jury recommended a death sentence.

The next day, three jurors issued a statement saying that they had made a “gut-wrenching decision” and that “there was not one person on the jury who did not cry.” They said that they would have voted for life had they known there was no possibility of parole. A fourth juror later made a similar statement.

Cruz asked for a new trial, arguing that the jury had been misinformed. The judge ruled against him, as did Arizona’s Supreme Court. In 2016, after Cruz’s appeals were concluded, the Supreme Court ruled in Lynch v. Arizona that the Simmons decision did apply to Arizona’s sentencing scheme.

But when Cruz tried to raise the issue again, state courts rejected his challenge under a state law that limits post-conviction proceedings unless the inmate can show that there had been a significant change in the law.

Sotomayor, writing for the majority, said Cruz’s case was a rare one in which the Supreme Court should second-guess a state court’s interpretation of a state law.

“Lynch overruled binding Arizona precedent,” she wrote. “Before Lynch, Arizona courts held that capital defendants were not entitled to inform the jury of their parole ineligibility. After Lynch, Arizona courts recognize that capital defendants have a due process right to provide the jury with that information when future dangerousness is at issue. It is hard to imagine a clearer break from the past.”

In dissent, Justice Amy Coney Barrett said Cruz had not cleared the high bar justifying intervention by the Supreme Court in matters ordinarily left to state courts. “The bar is met only by a decision so blatantly disingenuous that it reveals hostility to federal rights or those asserting them,” she wrote. “Given the respect we owe state courts, that is not a conclusion we should be quick to draw — and ordinarily, we are not quick to draw it.”

She added: “The court makes a case for why the Arizona Supreme Court’s interpretation of its own precedent is wrong. If I were on the Arizona Supreme Court, I might agree. But that call is not within our bailiwick.”

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch joined Barrett’s dissent in the case, Cruz v. Arizona, No. 21-846.

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