Why Arizona still needs the death penalty


A version of this article appeared in the Arizona Republic on November 27, 2017

Prosecutor: Why Arizona still needs the death penalty

Opinion, Bill Montgomery


In a coordinated campaign, death penalty opponents submitted nearly identical editorials in major publications across the US seeking to persuade the United States Supreme Court to review the case of Arizona v. Hidalgo and abolish the death penalty. Understanding how a decision is made to pursue the death penalty, the facts of this case and about the death penalty in Arizona, undermines their arguments.

My office follows a thorough and deliberative process for reviewing all death penalty eligible cases under tight deadlines. Arizona law requires us to make an initial decision within 60 days of the murderer’s arraignment. During this period of time, we request any and all information the defense team can offer to assess whether the death penalty can be supported by the evidence and is an appropriate punishment. If more time is needed to gather information, we regularly work with the defense to extend deadlines. After receiving input from victims, reviewing everything provided by the defense, and considering the facts and circumstances of the case, an experienced team makes a recommendation to me. I consider the recommendation carefully before making any decision.  Approving the filing of a Notice of Intent to Seek the Death Penalty is the most consequential decision I make as County Attorney.  Should more information be provided later on, we regularly review it and, where appropriate, we revisit our initial decision and resolve cases accordingly.

Lastly, not all murder cases are death penalty cases. In fact, Maricopa County has averaged 203 murders each year from 2012 through 2016 and a death notice has been filed in an average of 14 cases each year, less than 8% of the murders.

As for the editorials, they fail to acknowledge the extensive protections provided to capital defendants to safeguard constitutional rights and ensure a fair and just process. In Hidalgo’s case, every constitutional right was protected.  Hidalgo had a qualified capital defense team that included experienced investigators and mitigation specialists. The trial judge that presided over the case had presided over numerous death penalty cases and had represented several capital defendants before becoming a judge.

A jury unanimously imposed a death sentence on Hidalgo for good reason. Hidalgo agreed to kill the victim on behalf of a street gang for $1,000.00.  When Hidalgo went to kill the victim, the victim was not alone. Hidalgo murdered this second victim to eliminate a potential witness. He shot one victim in the back of the head and the other in the forehead.  Even though both victims were certainly dead, Hidalgo shot each victim an additional five times.  Before determining death was an appropriate punishment, the jurors found that Hildalgo had actually killed four people, the two Arizona victims and two Idaho women.   Like other death penalty cases in Maricopa County, the question was not who did it.  Hidalgo actually pled guilty to the charged offenses.  The only contested issue was what the penalty should be.

Next, death penalty opponents assert that the death penalty in Arizona is racially disparate. But this does not match the facts. Currently, there are 69 Caucasians, 25 Mexican Americans, 17 African Americans, 4 Native Americans, 3 Asians, and 2 classified as “Other” awaiting justice on Arizona’s death row.

Continuing complaints about the cost and time to impose the death penalty neglect the costs associated with constitutional protections and thorough appellate review caused by the very people complaining about costs and the time involved. For Arizona, this has led to excessive litigation in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and unnecessary delays averaging over 20 years with associated costs. Other federal circuits in the United States routinely and thoroughly review death penalty appeals within 10 years. This tolerance for endless litigation is an area ripe for criminal justice reform.

Notwithstanding claims of opposition by the American people to the contrary, recent polls continue to reflect that a majority of Americans support the death penalty and 31 states have determined there is a place for the death penalty in a just and proportionate system of punishment. One year ago, voters in Nebraska reinstated the death penalty abolished the year before by their legislature. Voters in California recently rejected an initiative proposing to abolish the death penalty and passed Proposition 66, which seeks to speed up the process for final review of capital sentences.  For as long as there are horrific murders reflecting the worst of crimes, there will be a role for the death penalty as a just and proportionate punishment.