Supreme Court Rejects Challenge to Arizona Death Penalty Law

(CN) — The Supreme Court on Monday rejected a challenge to Arizona’s death penalty law that argued the state doesn’t sufficiently narrow eligibility for a death sentence.

The petitioner in the case, Abel Daniel Hidalgo, was sentenced to death for the January 2001 contract killing of a Phoenix auto-body shop owner and an upholster who had been a witness to the crime.

Hidalgo pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and burglary shortly after the criminal phase of his trial got underway. During the penalty-phase of his trial, the jury gave Hidalgo two death sentences.

He then pleaded guilty in a separate case in Idaho to the murders of two women on an Indian reservation. He sentenced to life in prison for those offenses.

Hidalgo’s attorneys then challenge Arizona’s death penalty law, arguing the state’s criteria for a death sentence are to broad because it includes fourteen aggravating circumstances prosecutors can use to seek a death penalty instead of life in prison.

The attorneys sought an evidentiary hearing on Hidalgo’s behalf, presenting a study that showed that of the more than 860 first-degree murder cases that occurred in in Maricopa County, Arizona between 2002 and 2012, 98 percent were eligible for the death penalty.

Maricopa County is where Hidalgo’s crimes occurred.

The trial court rejected Hidalgo’s bid for a hearing, and the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed, although it did not dispute the petitioner’s evidence.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court let Hidalgo’s convictions and death sentences stand. As is their custom, the majority did not explain their rationale for rejecting the case.

However, in a lengthy concurrence penned by Justice Stephen Breyer, the court’s four more liberal justices said they would be willing to take up the issue Hidalgo raised, but in a different case in which lower courts could more thoroughly explore it first.

Breyer said while believes the Arizona Supreme Court misapplied U.S. Supreme precedent in rendering its decision, he had to agree with the majority’s decision to deny certiorari.

“In support of his Eighth Amendment challenge, the petitioner points to empirical evidence about Arizona’s capital sentence system that suggests about 98% of first-degree murder defendants in Arizona were eligible for the death penalty. That evidence is unrebutted. It points to a possible constitutional problem. And it was assumed to be true by the state courts below,” Breyer wrote in a statement joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Breyer goes on to say that “evidence of this kind warrants careful attention and evaluation.”

“However, in this case, the opportunity to develop the record through an evidentiary hearing was denied. As a result, the record as it has come to us is limited and largely unexamined by experts and the courts below in the first instance,” he continued. “We do not have evidence, for instance, as to the nature of the 866 cases (perhaps they implicate only a small number of aggravating factors).

“Nor has it been fully explained whether and to what extent an empirical study would be relevant to resolving the constitutional question presented,” Breyer said. “Capital defendants may have the opportunity to fully develop a record with the kind of empirical evidence that the petitioner points to here. And the issue presented in this petition will be better suited for certiorari with such a record.”

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