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Arizona Courts Under Criticism After Justices' Death Penalty Rulings

Back-to-back U.S. Supreme Court rulings have put Arizona's death penalty under the microscope and could have far-reaching implications for how the state sentences convicted murderers. Already, the rulings have forced another look at old capital cases. As many as 30 of the 109 people on Arizona's death row could have their death penalties — but not their guilty verdicts — reconsidered, legal experts say. That could involve new sentencing hearings or trials, the Arizona Republic reports. The high court, in two separate opinions in late February, ruled Arizona courts disregarded case law for nearly 30 years. The Supreme Court said Arizona improperly sent people to death row by failing to tell juries the defendants would never be released if they were sentenced to life without parole. That violated defendants' due process rights under the U.S. Constitution.

In case after case, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld death penalty verdicts nonetheless. The new rulings force what one legal expert called a "reckoning" that could send shock waves through the state's criminal justice system. The state Supreme Court's disregard for following this case law already has led to three men being resentenced. Bryan Wayne Hulsey was handed the death penalty a second time, and Joel Escalante-Orozco was resentenced to life in prison. The third, Jasper Phillip Rushing, is back in Maricopa County Superior Court for a sentencing do-over at the end of March. Another six defendants could get new hearings. Nine of the 10 cases, including the three that were resolved a second time, were tried in Maricopa County, which is one of the most aggressive counties in the nation for securing capital punishment verdicts. Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell said her office would abide by the ruling and look at the cases that were affected by the court's decision. The 10th case up for review involves John Montenegro Cruz, who was convicted in 2005 for the 2003 fatal shooting of Tucson police Officer Patrick Hardesty. He was accused of shooting the officer five times after he fled from a hit-and-run investigation and hid in a nearby apartment.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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