The Supreme Court agreed to hear an Arizona death-row inmate’s claim that he was wrongly denied the chance to tell jurors he would be ineligible for parole if they sentenced him to life instead of death, Cronkite News/Arizona PBS reports. John Montenegro Cruz killed a Tucson police officer in 2003 and has been on death row since 2005, more than a decade after the Supreme Court said defendants have a due process right to tell jurors they would spend the rest of their lives behind bars if sentenced to life. Arizona courts did not allow that until 2016, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to do so. Cruz asked for a resentencing, citing the 2016 ruling. His attorneys said it “should have been an easy case” for the Arizona Supreme Court to order the new hearing. Instead, the state court in June said Cruz should not get another sentencing hearing because the high court’s 2016 ruling was not a “significant change in the law” that would merit a new hearing. “The Arizona Supreme Court’s refusal to follow the same approach here creates a square conflict on an important issue of federal law in a case with life-or-death stakes,” Cruz said in his petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case began in 2003, when Cruz was being questioned by Tucson Police Officer Patrick Hardesty in a hit-and-run investigation. Cruz started to run and Hardesty gave chase. Cruz opened fire and hit Hardesty five times, with four of the shots fired from less than a foot away, killing the officer on the spot. Cruz was charged with first-degree murder, convicted and sentenced to death in 2005. Among the factors contributing to the death sentence was the fact that the victim was a police officer. Under Arizona law, defendants in capital cases are not eligible for parole if sentenced to life. Cruz’s trial attorney tried to call a witness from the state’s Board of Clemency to testify to that fact; the request was denied. The jury foreperson said after the sentencing that jurors wanted to find a reason to be lenient, but they did not think they had “an option to vote for life in prison without possibility of parole,” so they voted for the death sentence, said Cruz’s petition.