The Arizona Supreme Court on Friday reinstated the death penalty against a man convinced of the 1995 murder of University of Arizona music professor Roy Johnson.
In an unanimous decision, the justices said that Beau Greene was sentenced to death based on a law at the time that said those who commit murder for pecuniary purposes are eligible for the ultimate punishment. And they acknowledged that provision of the law was subsequently repealed by the Arizona Legislature.
But they concluded there was no evidence that state lawmakers intended to make that change retroactive.
The court also rejected Greene’s contention that it would be wrong to execute him now for something that lawmakers have since decided should no longer be considered when determining the motive for the crime.
“The conduct Greene engaged in, aside from his motive to murder, remains subject to a sentence of death and his actions in murdering Johnson continue to fall within that narrow category of the most serious crimes,” wrote Justice William Montgomery for the court. “Given that Greene’s sentence fulfills the penological goals of deterrence and retribution, it is our considered judgment that his sentence is proportionate to his murder of Johnson.”
Friday’s ruling does not end the legal wrangling. There is still a parallel challenge playing out in the federal court system over his other legal arguments like whether he was denied effective assistance of counsel.
Court records show Johnson was last seen the evening of Feb. 28, 1995, leaving the Green Valley Presbyterian Church where he had given an organ recital.
Greene, who admitted he had been using meth continuously for several days and was suffering from withdrawal, said Johnson approached him and offered to pay for oral sex. When Johnson did not follow through, Greene said he “freaked out” and struck Johnson several times in the head.
He then put Johnson in the back of the car and drove to a wash, where he dumped the body and then drove away. Greene said he then realized he needed money so he returned to the wash, walked down to the body, and stole Johnson’s wallet.
Greene then went on a spending spree using Johnson’s credit cards. He was arrested several days later at a friend’s house.
He eventually was sentenced to death.
In 2020 he filed a petition for post-conviction relief.
Central to that was that lawmakers had in 2019 altered the list of “aggravating factors” in the capital punishment statutes.
Under Arizona law, a murder, by itself, does not automatically mean imposition of the death penalty. Instead, the jury has to consider whether there were aggravating factors, ranging from whether there was a prior conviction for another crime for which the death penalty could have been imposed, the defendant was on probation, the victim was a police officer or the offense was committed “in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner.”
That list at the time of his 1996 sentencing also included language that allowed for the death penalty if the crime was committed in expectation of anything of pecuniary value. That was one of the factors used to impose the death sentence.
But the current version was narrowed to include only situations of a murder-for-hire. Based on that and parallel arguments, Pima County Superior Court Judge Wayne Yehling vacated the death sentence.
That, the Supreme Court concluded, was wrong.
It starts, Montgomery wrote, with the fact that nothing in the 2019 amendment suggested lawmakers meant the change to be retroactive. Absent such language, he wrote, the new language was prospective only.
Greene also argued that his sentence violates the Eight Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment because the decision of lawmakers to eliminate the pecuniary gain provision shows they no longer believe that particular conduct is deserving of the death penalty.
He said while lawmakers eliminated the motive as a specific factor in allowing the death penalty, they did not enact legislation that categorically exempted him and his conduct from the penalty.
“Nor did the Legislature foreclose imposition of a death sentence for a defendant who commits a similar crime under similar circumstances as Greene,” Montgomery wrote. “While Greene’s pecuniary gain motive for murdering Johnson may no longer be considered by a jury in determining whether to impose a death sentence, the Legislature did not eliminate consideration of his conduct in murdering Johnson.”F