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Man on Arizona death row has justices splitting hairs

Arizona's rule for postconviction relief left the justices considering how to make sure states follow their rulings. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — A court that has appeared of late apathetic to precedent considered an argument Tuesday over whether the overturning of precedent represents a significant change.

The case comes from a capital punishment case in Arizona where John Montenegro Cruz seeks postconviction relief for what he claims was a violation of his due process rights. In denying this relief, however, the state argues that there has been no significant change that would warrant overturning his sentence. 

While the details of the case had some of the justices splitting hairs this morning, there was concern that a ruling in favor of Arizona could create a roadmap for other states to skirt the high court’s rulings. 

“If we were to rule in your favor, it will give other states a roadmap for defying this court’s precedents,” Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson told Arizona’s chief deputy attorney general. 

Justice Elena Kagan said the state’s arguments sought to avoid applying the court’s precedents. 

“It sounds like you are thumbing your nose at us,” the Obama appointee said. 

Cruz was convicted and sentenced to death for the 2003 murder of a Tucson police officer, Patrick Hardesty, whom Cruz shot five times during a confrontation about a hit-and-run accident. 

During his trial, Cruz now claims, the judge denied all his requests to inform the jury of his parole ineligibility. He attempted to call the chairman of the Arizona Board of Clemency, Duane Belcher, as a witness, claiming Belcher would demonstrate that parole was unavailable for Cruz, but was denied. 

Arizona focused on Cruz’s dangerousness at sentencing. While Cruz had a former prison warden testify that he was unlikely to be a danger in prison, the state questioned the warden’s credibility. The jury was given instructions with three possible sentences, one of which had been life imprisonment with a possibility of parole after 25 years. Cruz was sentenced to death.

When deciding to impose the death penalty, Supreme Court precedent requires juries to be informed of the defendant’s “future dangerousness.” The reasoning behind the court’s ruling in Simmons v. South Carolina is based on the thinking that a jury may be more inclined to sentence a defendant to death if they believe the defendant could pose a future danger to society. Defendants thus have a due-process right to tell juries if they could never be paroled, even if they are spared from the death penalty. 

For a time the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that Simmons is not applicable in the state. This forced the court to issue a rare summary reversal holding that Simmons does apply in Arizona. Even after the court’s ruling in Lynch v. Arizona, however, approximately 30 prisoners have still been denied this right. 

Cruz’s trial falls between the court’s ruling in Simmons and Lynch. When Cruz attempted to bring a Simmons claim to the Arizona Supreme Court, it ruled against him, concluding that Simmons did not apply in Arizona. Once the court ruled in Lynch, Cruz again tried to file for relief. 

Part of Cruz’s arguments before the Arizona Supreme Court involves a procedural rule that authorizes a defendant to bring a successive petition for postconviction relief if there has been a significant change in the law that could overturn the defendant’s judgment or sentence. The Arizona Supreme Court found that Cruz did not qualify under that procedural rule because there was no significant change in the law, even though the court had previously said overturning precedent qualified as a significant change. 

The high court then took up the case in March to examine if Arizona’s procedural rule provided an adequate reason for the denial of relief.  

Cruz claims that the Arizona Supreme Court’s interpretation of the procedural rule in his case represents a departure from precedent and disregards the justices’ rulings. 

“It is the essence of novel, the essence of discrimination against this court’s rulings,” said Neal Katyal, an attorney for Cruz with the firm Hogan Lovells. 

Arizona’s Chief Deputy Attorney General Joseph Kanefield argued that the state’s high court relied on the principle of finality in its ruling. He urged the justices to give the court a chance to flush out the law. 

Kagan said the state’s arguments represented an attempt to win no matter what. 

“It’s not consistent with the legal system that you win no matter what,” Kagan said. 

While the three liberal justices did not seem swayed by the state’s arguments, it was not clear where all the court’s conservatives stood on the issue. Justices Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito offered tough questions for Cruz and leaned toward the state’s arguments. But Justice Amy Coney Barrett seemed skeptical of the state. 

“It just seems like you’re hairsplitting,” Barrett said to Kanefield.

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