Supreme Court rules in favor of Arizona death row inmate

The Supreme Court has issued its ruling in Cruz v. Arizona, 598 U.S. ___ (Feb. 22, 2023), reversing the Arizona Supreme Court's denial of post-conviction relief to John Montenegro Cruz and remanding for further proceedings.  At Cruz's trial, he had invoked Simmons v. South Carolina, 512 U.S. 154 (1994), and asked that the jury be informed that a life sentence in Arizona would be without parole.  The trial court refused, finding that Simmons did not apply to Arizona's sentencing scheme.  On appeal from the ensuing death sentence, the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed, agreeing that Simmons did not apply in Arizona.  The Arizona Supreme Court repeated its interpretation of Simmons in subsequent cases.  In 2016, the Supreme Court summarily reversed the Arizona Supreme Court in Lynch v. Arizona, 578 U. S. 613 (2016) (per curiam), and held that it was fundamental error to conclude that Simmons “did not apply” in Arizona. 578 U. S., at 615.  Cruz responded by filing a successive motion for post-conviction relief in state court. The Arizona Supreme Court denied relief, concluding that Lynch was not a “significant change in the law” as required by state law for the filing of a successive petition.  

The Supreme Court held that the state court's application of its procedural rule in Cruz's case did not provide an "adequate" state ground for precluding review of the federal claim.   This was because the Arizona Supreme Court's interpretation of its procedural rule in Cruz's case was entirely new and in conflict with prior case law.  The majority opinion was authored by Justice Sotomayor and joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Kagan, Kavanaugh and Jackson.  Justice Barrett wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch.