WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday for a man on Arizona's death row who wants a new sentencing hearing because jurors in his case were wrongly told that the only way to ensure he would never walk free was to sentence him to death.
The 5-4 decision written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor likely means that John Montenegro Cruz will get a new penalty phase of his trial where it is made clear to jurors that he is ineligible for parole if he is sentenced to life in prison, instead of death.
“I am so gratified by the Court’s decision today. What Arizona has been doing in implementing the death penalty is patently unconstitutional and wrong, and I’m glad to see the Court call them out,” Cruz's lawyer Neal Katyal said in a statement.
The case is important not only for Cruz, but also for other Arizona death row inmates. Arizona currently has approximately 100 people on its death row and the decision could affect about 30 of them with pending cases.
Cruz had argued that the jury should have been informed he would be ineligible for parole if spared from death and given a life sentence. A judge rejected that request and the state said Cruz failed to make the precise requests he needed to under Supreme Court precedent.
At least one juror has said that had she known that a “life sentence without parole” was an alternative to death, she “would have voted for that option.”
Cruz was convicted of the 2003 murder of a Tucson police officer, Patrick Hardesty. Hardesty and another officer were investigating a hit-and-run accident that led them to Cruz, who attempted to flee and shot Hardesty five times.
A 1994 Supreme Court case, Simmons v. South Carolina, says that in certain death penalty cases, jurors must be told that choosing a life sentence means life without the possibility of parole. That’s required when prosecutors argue that the defendant will pose a threat to society in the future.
Arizona courts refused to apply the decision. In a 2016 case, Lynch v. Arizona, the Supreme Court told Arizona directly that it needed to comply with Simmons. Cruz argued Arizona has continued to defy the high court.
The case is Cruz v. Arizona, 21-846.