By Alexis Hoag Fordjour
October 29, 2022
at 4:18 p.m.
Tuesday, in Cruz vs. Arizonathe Supreme Court will consider whether an Arizona rule of criminal procedure, Rule 32.1(g), prevents Arizona courts from applying federal law to a defendant’s case in post-conviction proceedings. Rule 32.1(g) allows plaintiffs in Arizona to challenge their conviction or sentence following a “significant change in the law”, if that change applies to their case. On the surface, Cross presents a relatively narrow procedural question for the court to decide. However, the decision has serious implications. This will affect whether Arizona extends the constitutional right to due process to certain people who have been sentenced to death in the state. For John Montenegro Cruz and nearly 30 others in the same situation on death row in Arizona, the case is a matter of life and death.
In 2005, a Pima County jury convicted Cruz of first degree capital murder. At death penalty trials, there is a separate second procedure that requires the same jury to weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances to determine the appropriate sentence. The jury in Cruz’s trial could choose between two possible sentences: death or life in prison. During the sentencing process, the state implicated Cruz’s future dangerousness, meaning the jury was asked to consider whether he was likely to pose a danger to others at the time. coming.
Cruz’s defense attorney asked the judge if he could refute the state’s characterization that Cruz posed a danger to the public in the future. Under Arizona law, capital defendants who (like Cruz) committed crimes after 1993 were not (and remain) ineligible for parole. Cruz’s attorney asked to inform the jury that if the jury declined to enter a death sentence, Cruz would not be eligible for parole and would spend the rest of his life in prison. The attorney argued that such evidence was essential to prevent jurors from drawing the conclusion that if they did not sentence Cruz to death, he could one day be released on parole. The judge, however, denied the request to inform the jury that if they spared Cruz from the death penalty, he would not be eligible for parole. The jury returned a death sentence.
That Cruz wanted to inform the jury of his ineligibility for parole was not a detail. More, than a decade earlier, in Simmons v. South Carolina, the Supreme Court has addressed this issue. In Simmons, the court held that in capital trials, where the state challenges the future dangerousness of the defendants, the defendants have the constitutional right to inform the jury that they will not be eligible for parole if they do not are not executed. In the context of the death penalty, the court described this information as “unquestionably relevant” and “crucial to [the jury’s] sentencing”. The court explained that failure to disclose information about the defendant’s parole ineligibility to the jury would be tantamount to denying the defendant’s constitutional right to due process. Most juries, the court explained, “lack precise information about the precise meaning of ‘life imprisonment'”. refute this argument with the fact that the defendant will not be eligible for parole. Essentially, death row defendants, when faced with the state’s argument about future dangerousness, have a constitutional right to tell the jury that life in prison means life in prison. Such information allows defendants to refute the inference that they might somehow endanger the public if they escaped the death penalty.
Despite the decision of Simmons, for years, the Arizona Supreme Court refused to apply the decision to capital defendants in Arizona. In 2016, the United States Supreme Court corrected the problem by Lynch vs. Arizonareversing the erroneous Arizona Supreme Court ruling that Simmons did not apply in the state. Cruz’s death sentence became ‘final’ when he exhausted direct appeals in 2009 – after the US Supreme Court ruled Simmons but before publishing the correction in Lynch. Once Lynch was decided, Cruz filed a second state petition after sentencing. Because Cruz never got relief under Simmonshe leaned on Rule 32.1(g)arguing that Lynch constituted a “significant change in the law”, requiring Arizona to enforce Simmons and thus, Cruz was now entitled to a remedy. Cruz says Arizona courts can’t continue to evade enforcement Simmons and Lynch to him and to others like him. In Cruz’s view, by not enforcing federal control law, Arizona is effectively violating the Constitution. supremacy clausewhich states that federal laws generally take precedence over state laws.
Arizona raises a number of arguments, some narrowly focusing on the Cruz case and others dealing with broader concepts, like the relationship between state and federal courts when considering post-trial claims. conviction of a state petitioner. First, Arizona explains that Cruz did not seek specific instructions from the jury citing Simmons even though it was a well-established law at the time of his trial. Because of this failure, Arizona argues that the issue is not available for state courts to consider in post-conviction proceedings. According to Arizona, Cruz’s reliance on rule 32.1(g) is inappropriate because Lynch did not constitute a “material change in the law”, it simply applied the existing law as set out in Simmons. And because Cruz missed his opportunity to raise the Simmons question during the trial, he cannot now indicate Lynch as a significant change in the law for obtaining relief in the courts of Arizona. Rule 32 imposes limits on what Arizona courts can consider in ancillary proceedings (the direct review appeals process), and because Cruz failed to meet the requirements of the rule, Arizona courts Arizona cannot consider the merits of its federal constitutional claim under Simmons. Additionally, Arizona argues that its decision to deny Cruz compensation is based on adequate grounds independent of state law, thereby precluding federal review of the claim.
In particular, Cruz originally requested the judges to determine whether Lynch “applied an established rule of federal law” that the Supreme Court “must … apply[y] to cases awaiting collateral examination in Arizona. However, the court agreed to examine the case on whether “the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision that … Rule … 32.1(g) precluded a post-conviction remedy is an adequate and independent state law ground for judgment”. The shift in focus of the question presented takes a step back from the underlying merits of Cruz’s request for relief and takes a broader look at the post-conviction review process in Arizona.
The amici curiae (friends of the court) filed six briefs, five in support of Cruz and one in support of Arizona. Most amicus briefs focus on the procedural intricacies of the case, with the exception of jointly filed briefs. Short of LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. Instead, LatinoJustice and LDF shed light on the role of racial bias and prejudice in the perceptions of jurors in the capital as to whether a defendant is likely to pose a danger to others in the future. Detailing social science research showing that black, Afro-Latino and Latino defendants are perceived as more dangerous than their white counterparts, the brief argues that informing jurors of a defendant’s parole ineligibility can play a crucial role in addressing racial bias in the capital-sentencing process. The brief also ties the argument directly to Cruz’s case, detailing the rise in anti-Mexican and anti-Latino sentiment in Arizona at the time of the trial. Cruz is Mexican-American. LatinoJustice and LDF argue that given the atmosphere surrounding Cruz’s trial, he was especially in need of the protections that Simmons offered, and moreover, the Constitution required jurors to learn that Cruz was ineligible for parole.
The court’s decision will directly impact about 30 people in Arizona sentenced to death by juries barred from learning they were ineligible for parole if they escaped the death penalty. Of the 30, the Arizona Supreme Court denied consideration of six petitioners who raised an identical argument in their post-sentence appeals to the state High Court. These six people are about to petition the United States Supreme Court for a resolution. The nearly two dozen other defendants have a similar post-conviction claim pending in Arizona state courts. Beyond the direct impact in Arizona, the decision could signal the court’s position on two interests that often compete: finality (the final resolution of a judgment) and a convicted person’s ability to benefit from meaningful appellate review of violations of his constitutional rights. The last mandate, in Shinn vs. Ramirez, In another Arizona case involving death row petitioners, the court prioritized finality over the petitioners’ constitutional right to effective counsel. shinn had broader implications that extended to all state-convicted petitioners appealing their convictions in federal court across the country. Perhaps, because the outfit Cross will be limited to petitioners on death row in Arizona, the court may be more willing to prioritize due process.