Published on: Thursday, February 23, 2023

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of John Montenegro Cruz, an Arizona prisoner who was sentenced to death by a jury that was not told a life without parole sentence meant he would never be released. See Cruz v. Arizona, No. 21-846 (Feb. 22, 2023). Justice Sotomayor delivered the 5-to-4 opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C.J., Kagan, Kavanaugh, and Jackson, JJ., joined. Justice Barrett filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch, JJ.

Petitioner John Montenegro Cruz was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death by Arizona following a jury trial in 2005. During trial, the state put his future dangerousness at issue. Cruz repeatedly requested the opportunity to inform his jury that he would be parole-ineligible if spared the death penalty. The court denied his requests even though at the time of his trial due process entitled a defendant to inform the jury that he will be ineligible for parole if not sentenced to death where future dangerousness was in issue. Simmons v. South Carolina, 512 U.S. 154 (1994). On direct appeal in 2008, the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed Cruz’s conviction and death sentence after concluding that Simmons did not apply in Arizona. After Cruz had completed state postconviction proceedings, the Supreme Court decided Lynch v. Arizona, 578 U.S. 613 (2016) (per curiam), holding that Simmons applies in Arizona. Cruz then promptly filed a successive motion for postconviction relief in state court arguing that he was entitled to the benefit of Lynch under Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(g), which provides that a defendant may seek postconviction relief if “there has been a significant change in the law that, if applicable to the defendant’s case, would probably overturn the defendant’s judgment or sentence.”

After the postconviction trial court denied relief, the Arizona Supreme Court granted Cruz’s petition for review, but denied relief finding that Lynch did not constitute a “significant change in the law” under Rule 32.1(g). Although the court had long recognized that a “significant change in the law” occurs where, as in Lynch, a court overturns binding precedent in Arizona, the Arizona Supreme Court abruptly changed course, declaring that Lynch represented “a significant change in the application of the law,” but did not change the law itself. Thus, Cruz could not obtain the benefit of Simmons on collateral review because it had been clearly established when he was sentenced to death, even though Cruz had been denied the benefit of Simmons on direct review because the state courts had refused to apply it.

Unimpressed that Arizona could point to no other Rule 32.1(g) decision supporting the distinction between a “significant change in the law” and “significant change in the application of the law,” the Supreme Court vacated and remanded the state court’s judgment. Generally, federal courts will not decide a question of federal law in a case if the state-court judgment “rests on a state law ground that is independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment.”  In Cruz, the Court focused on the requirement of adequacy: whether Arizona’s “state procedural ruling is adequate is itself a question of federal law.” A state procedural ruling that is “ ‘firmly established and regularly followed’ ” will ordinarily “be adequate to foreclose review of a federal claim.” But, the Court explained that this case is an exception, implicating the Court’s rule that “an unforeseeable and unsupported state-court decision on a question of state procedure does not constitute an adequate ground to preclude th[e] Court’s review of a federal question.”  Said another way, the Court held:

In exceptional cases where a state-court judgment rests on a novel and unforeseeable state-court procedural decision lacking fair or substantial support in prior state law, that decision is not adequate to preclude review of a federal question. The Arizona Supreme Court applied Rule 32.1(g) in a manner that abruptly departed from and directly conflicted with its prior interpretations of that Rule.

Since denying Cruz relief, the Arizona Supreme Court has repeatedly denied the claims of other defendants seeking similar relief. The Court’s decision resolved a question of life-or-death importance for Cruz, for defendants similarly situated to Cruz whose claims have been rejected by the Arizona Supreme Court, and for other defendants whose Simmons/Lynch claims are pending in Arizona. There is no dispute that these defendants were sentenced to death in violation of due process and under the misperception that they could be released on parole if they were not executed. 

Refusing to inform the jury that a defendant will never be paroled has an enormous impact in the jury room. Empirical evidence shows that when states provide jurors with an option to sentence defendants convicted of capital murder to life without the possibility of parole, and jurors are accurately instructed that defendants will not be released if sentenced to life without parole, jurors are far more likely to reject death and impose a parole-ineligible sentence. As the Simmons plurality explained, “there may be no greater assurance of a defendant’s future nondangerousness to the public than the fact that he never will be released on parole.” Failing to inform the jury that a defendant is parole-ineligible invites the jury to operate on the mistaken premise that a death sentence is the only way to ensure the defendant will never again pose a danger to society. This, in turn, heightens the risk that “powerful racial stereotype[s]” regarding dangerousness will infect jury deliberations.

Though the Court's ruling focused on the adequacy of Arizona's Rule 32.1, Cruz's attorneys also forecfully raised other arguments, not discussed by the Majority opinoin, such as: (1) Rule 32.1(g) is not adequate or independent because it conflicts with federal retroactivity law, i.e., Teauge v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), and its progreny, which are binding on state postconviction courts; (2) Rule 32.1(g), as interpreted by the Arizona Supreme Court, is not a permissible procedural or jurisdictional rule because it discriminates against federal law; and, (3) the Arizona Supreme Court’s interpretation of Rule 32.1(g) is not an independent rule because it is interwoven with federal law.

The briefing in Cruz is avaiable here, and oral argument here