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SCOTUS Overrules Arizona Supreme Court, Allows Death Row Prisoner to Proceed With State Habeas Action

by Matt Clarke

On February 22, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) held that its decision in Lynch v. Arizona, 578 U.S. 613 (2016), was a “significant change” in the law as that term is used in Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(g). The decision cleared the way for a death row prisoner to pursue state habeas corpus relief. In issuing it, the high court also put down an apparent rebellion by the Arizona Supreme Court (ASC).

Almost three decades ago, the Court held that capital juries must be advised when a defendant is ineligible for parole, in Simmons v. South Carolina, 512 U.S. 154 (1994). But the Arizona high court ignored that ruling. So in its 2016 decision in Lynch, the Court specifically said its earlier decision applied to Arizona’s capital sentencing scheme – overturning binding ASC precedent which consistently ignored what SCOTUS had ruled for almost 30 years. Incredibly, though, the Arizona high court remained stubbornly opposed.

John Montenegro Cruz was convicted of capital murder. The only aggravating factor found by the jury was that the victim was a police officer. The 1994 version of Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. Sec. 41-1604.09(I)(1) eliminated parole for felonies, like his, committed after 1993. At trial, Cruz repeatedly sought to inform the jury that this made him ineligible for parole, should jurors sentence him to life, only to be overruled by the judge. In fact, the judge told the jury that Cruz could be eligible for the death penalty, life without parole or “life imprisonment with the possibility of parole or release” after 25 years. The judge also told jurors they could decide only whether Cruz would be executed and, if they spared him, the judge would determine which of the life sentences he received – an incorrect statement of the law. Cruz was sentenced to death.

Three jurors told the press the next day that they and others on the jury would have sentenced Cruz to life without parole, but the judge had not given them that option. Cruz raised the issue on direct appeal without success. ACS even incorrectly held that no state law would have prevented Cruz from belong released on parole after 25 years.

After SCOTUS decided Lynch, Cruz filed a successive motion for state post-conviction relief pursuant to Rule 32.1(g). But ACS held Lynch was not a “significant change” in the law that would permit a successive writ under that rule and denied relief. Cruz petitioned SCOTUS for a writ of certiorari, which was granted, and the high court heard the case.

It began by noting that ACS, in an unprecedented analysis, had considered the effect of Lynch on federal law only. Lynch did not change federal law, the Court noted, but it overruled multiple ACS decisions that were binding on state law. This, by ACS’s own definition, was a “significant change” in the law, SCOTUS said, pointing to State v. Shrum, 203 P.3d 1175 (Ariz. 2009). Thus, ACS’s decision was so novel and unfounded as not to preclude federal review, per Bouie v. City of Columbia, 378 U.S. 449 (1958).

SCOTUS held that although Lynch did not change federal interpretation of Simmons, “it did change the operative (and mistaken) interpretation of Simmons by Arizona courts” and this was a change in the law in Arizona “in the way that it matters for purposes of Rule 32.1(g). It overruled previous binding [ACS] precedent preventing capital defendants from informing their juries of their parole ineligibility.” In a 5-4 split – with Justices Roberts, Kavanaugh, Kagan, and Jackson joining Justice Sotomayor’s majority opinion – the ACS judgment was vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings.

Cruz’s case was argued before the high court by attorney Neal K. Katyal of Washington, D.C. See: Cruz v. Arizona, 143 S.Ct. 650 (2023).