Arizona Lawmakers Move to Tighten State's Death Penalty Law

Mar 4, 2019

Arizona legislators are moving to tighten the state's law on capital punishment by eliminating three of the 14 so-called "aggravating factors" that can be the basis for imposing death sentences.

In this July 23, 2014, file photo, a fence surrounds the state prison in Florence, Ariz.
Credit AP Photo/File

Some U.S. Supreme Court justices said in a 2017 case that Arizona's multitude of aggravating factors means virtually every defendant convicted of first-degree murder could be eligible for death, thus violating the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Maricopa County Attorney's Office supports the billthat cleared the Senate with bipartisan support and now awaits House consideration, the Arizona Capitol Times reported .

Rebecca Baker, a lobbyist for the County Attorney's Office, said the law is constitutionally sound but that there's been discussion about ways to ensure that it can remain on the books for the future.

"The courts have expressed concerns about constitutionality for all aggravators that exist in death penalty sentencing," said Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, a Republican and the bill's sponsor. "The county attorney said they would look at some of the aggravating factors . and take some of them away that haven't been used for some time."

Aggravating factors that would be eliminated under the bill apply if the defendant created a grave risk of death to another person in addition to the person killed, if the offense was committed in a "cold, calculated manner without pretense of moral or legal justification," and if the defendant used a stun gun in committing the murder.

Other aggravating factors that would remain on the books include ones that apply if the victim was a juvenile, if the offense resulted in convictions for more than one murder and if the killer was previously convicted of a serious offense.

Dale Baich, chief of the capital habeas unit of the Federal Public Defender's Office in Arizona, said two of the aggravating factors that would be eliminated are used infrequently.

Baich said the bill is "a good start, but there is more that can be done to further narrow the statute."

He said the aggravator that involves an offense committed in a heinous, cruel or depraved manner used to be determined by a judge, someone who knows when to use it, but since 2002 has been determined by jurors, which could lead to it being used more often.

Then-Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, in 2014 vetoed a bill to create an additional aggravating factor, saying in her veto letter that the addition could potential make the death penalty unconstitutional.