Supreme Court reverses death sentences of 6 in Arizona, orders new sentencings

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The U.S. Supreme Court set aside the death sentences of six convicted murderers in Arizona after recently ruling that withholding certain information from the jury during the sentencing process was unlawful.

The court previously held it was illegal to prevent jurors from being informed that if a condemned person were given a life sentence it would be without the possibility of parole.

The ruling on March 6 does not set aside the murder convictions of Johnathan Ian Burns, Steve Boggs, Ruben Garza, Fabio Gomez, Steven Newell, and Stephen Reeves, but directs the lower courts to carry out new sentencing proceedings.

The decision follows the high court’s 5–4 ruling on Feb. 22 that held that convicted cop killer John Montenegro Cruz, also in Arizona, was entitled to contest his sentence in federal court after a state court’s procedural rule prevented him from doing so.

Appeals from prisoners under a death sentence rarely succeed at the high court but in this case, the conservatives Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh sided with the court’s three liberals in Cruz v. Arizona. About 30 other persons in total in similar situations are now thought to be entitled to be resentenced.

In Simmons v. South Carolina (1994), the U.S. Supreme Court found that in cases where a capital defendant is thought to present a future danger to society, the defendant has a due-process-based right to let the jury know that he could never be paroled, even if spared the death penalty.

Years after the decision, the Supreme Court of the State of Arizona refused on several occasions to apply the ruling, but in 2016 in Lynch v. Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the ruling applies to the Grand Canyon State.

After the Lynch decision, Cruz applied in state court arguing he was entitled to post-conviction relief because of the Simmons decision but Arizona’s supreme court found that Lynch was not “a significant change in the law.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the high court’s majority opinion, finding that the Arizona courts had adopted a “novel” interpretation that “disregards the effect of Lynch on the law in Arizona.”

“While Lynch did not change this Court’s interpretation of Simmons, it did change the operative (and mistaken) interpretation of Simmons by Arizona courts,” Sotomayor wrote.

The U.S. Supreme Court summarily disposed of the case, known as Burns v. Arizona, court file 21-847, simultaneously granting the petitioners’ request seeking review while skipping over the oral argument phase, when the merits of the case would have been considered. Some lawyers call this process GVR, which stands for grant, vacate, and remand.

“[T]he cases are remanded to the Superior Court of Arizona, Maricopa County for further consideration in light of Cruz v. Arizona,” the unsigned order states. No justices dissented from the ruling.

Lead petitioner Burns was convicted of the first-degree murder in 2007 of Jackie Hartman, 19. He was also convicted of sexual assault, kidnapping, and misconduct involving a weapon, according to a brief (pdf) filed by the state.

Weeks after Hartman met Burns for a date, her body was found in a remote area with two gunshot wounds to the head, several skull fractures from blunt force impact, and sperm matching Burns’s DNA was found in the dead woman’s underwear. Hartman’s blood and an earring were found in Burns’s truck and cellphone records established that on the night of the victim’s disappearance, Burns drove to the area where Hartman’s body was found and stayed there for several hours. Burns’s handgun—which police retrieved after Burns disposed of it—was determined to have fired a bullet found near the victim’s body.

The jury found two aggravating circumstances: that Burns had a prior or contemporaneous Arizona felony conviction, and that the murder was especially cruel, heinous, or depraved. After the penalty phase, the jury determined that Burns should be sentenced to death.

The fact that Burns was not allowed to argue at sentencing that the consecutive sentences on his non-capital convictions meant he would stay in prison for the rest of his life would not have made a difference, according to the Arizona Supreme Court.

Burns “had no right to present evidence of his effective life sentence to the jury because it would have been irrelevant as a mitigating factor,” the state said.

The Epoch Times reached out to attorneys for Burns and in the Arizona attorney general’s office but did not receive a reply from any of them as of press time.

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared March 7, 2023, in The Epoch Times.