Death Penalty Case Won't Be Heard by Supreme Court
By Keri Blakinger
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to consider an Arizona case that could have spelled the end of capital punishment in that state and the rest of the nation.
In a failed late-stage appeal, condemned killer Abel Hidalgo argued both that his state's death penalty statute was over-broad, unconstitutionally allowing too many murder convictions to be death-eligible and that the death penalty as a whole is unconstitutional.
Although they didn't take up either question, four of the justices issued a statement laying out their interest in taking up the Arizona-specific claims in the future.
But their refusal made no mention of the broader claims challenging the nation's harshest punishment.
"I don't think it tells us anything one way or the other about whether the court will consider the overall constitutionally of the death penalty in the U.S.," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
"When people ask whether this is 'the big case,' the four justices who issued the statement said it is not a case about the constitutionality of the death penalty itself -- it's a case about the state of Arizona's requirements for making somebody eligible to face the death penalty in that state. And on that narrower question they want to see a more fully developed factual record."
The issue of the breadth or narrowness of capitally punishable crime statutes is a decades-old legal debate. In 1972, a groundbreaking Supreme Court decision eliminated the death penalty, deeming existing laws too arbitrary.
States responded by revising their laws to include specific "aggravating circumstances" that could make a case capital -- and the justices validated the new statutes in a 1976 decision.
In Texas, those aggravating factors include things like multiple murders, slayings of children under 10, murder-for-hire, and murders committed in the course of other crimes like rape or burglary.
In Arizona, a slightly broader set of 14 aggravating factors includes killings involving a stun gun, "especially heinous" slayings, murder-for-hire, murders committed in a "cold, calculated manner with pretense of moral or legal justification" and more.
Hidalgo -- who was convicted in a gang-related $1,000 contract killing in 2001 -- was represented in court by attorney Neal Katyal, the high-profile attorney behind the Hawaii federal case fighting Trump's travel ban.
Katyal did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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