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People have right to defend themselves even if it kills them, high court rules

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It may literally be a death-defying act.

But the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Thursday that people convicted of murder have the right to represent themselves in the part of the trial where a jury is deciding whether they live or die.

The justices rejected the pleas of Aaron Gunches, now finally represented by a public defender, that they should overturn the decision by a jury to sentence him to death because he acted as his own lawyer in the penalty phase of the trial. Justice John Pelander, writing for the unanimous court, while the decision was “ill advised,” said there is a long-standing constitutional right of defendants who are competent to represent themselves.

Stephen Whelihan, a deputy county public advocate, did not dispute that the right exists for an actual trial. But he argued it’s different in capital cases there are actually two phases, with the first to determine guilt or innocence.

In the second phase, the jury decides if there are certain “aggravating factors” that would make a death sentence more appropriate than life behind bars. These include things like committing a crime for financial gain or that the victim was a police officer.

In this case, jurors found two factors: a prior conviction of a serious offense and that the murder was committed in an especially cruel and heinous manner.

Jurors also are supposed to consider whether there are “mitigating factors” to spare someone’s life, like lack of a prior criminal record and things in the person’s history that might explain his or her conduct like prior abuse or mental or physical illness.

Gunches, representing himself, presented none of that to the jury.

Now, on appeal for the 2002 shooting death of Ted Price in the desert near Mesa, Gunches’ attorneys said that constitutional right of self-representation should be limited to the guilt-or-innocence part of the trial.

“The independent societal interest in the fair administration of justice has been found to outweigh even the right of the accused to counsel of his choice enshrined in the Sixth Amendment,” Whelihan argued.

The high court disagreed.

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