The Arizona Supreme Court on Wednesday denied a broad challenge to the state’s law on capital punishment, rejecting arguments that there are too many possible circumstances making defendants eligible for possible death sentences.
The justices dealt with the challenge in a unanimous ruling upholding two murder convictions and death sentences of Abel Daniel Hidalgo, who is in a federal prison in Arizona serving life sentences for two other killings committed on an Indian reservation in Idaho.
Defense lawyers for Hidalgo and other Arizona murder defendants had argued in trial court that Arizona’s death penalty law doesn’t sufficiently narrow eligibility for the death penalty.
Arizona law includes 14 so-called “aggravating circumstances” that prosecutors can allege for jurors to decide whether a defendant is eligible for a possible death sentence instead of life in prison.
The circumstances include a previous conviction for a serious offense, killing for money, victims who are police officers or a child under age 15, killing while in prison and killing “in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner.”
Defense attorneys argued that defendants’ due-process rights were violated because nearly every first-degree murder case filed in Maricopa County, which includes most of metro Phoenix, could support at least one aggravating factor.
However, the Supreme Court’s ruling authored by Chief Justice Scott Bales noted that prosecutors only sought a death penalty in about 10 percent of Maricopa County first-degree murder cases in a two-year span earlier this decade.
Determining whether a defendant will be sentenced to death involves several narrowing steps that go beyond the law’s listing of aggravating factors, including consideration of evidence suggesting leniency, Bales said.
“Observing that at least one of several aggravating circumstances could apply to nearly every murder is not the same as saying that a particular aggravating circumstance is present in every murder,” Bales added.
Hidalgo pleaded guilty in the January 2001 contract killing of Phoenix auto-body shop owner Michael Cordova and the killing of upholsterer Jose Rojas. Jurors then sentenced him to death.
Hidalgo said he killed Cordova for $1,000 at the behest of a gang member and that he killed Rojas because Rojas was at Cordova’s business and was a potential witness.
In the Arizona killings, prosecutors alleged and jurors found multiple aggravating factors — a money-related motive, prior convictions for a serious offense, convictions for another offense that could be punished by either life or death and commission of multiple murders.
Hidalgo pleaded guilty in federal court in Idaho to the 2002 drug-related killings of two Shoshone-Bannock women, 21-year-old Leigha Tacunan and 42-year-old Margaret Fellows.
Prosecutors didn’t ascribe a motive to the killings at a home on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in Idaho, but an FBI agent testified in a hearing in the case that the Hidalgo had supplied drugs to the women. Tacunan was a former girlfriend of Hidalgo.