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Arizona Supreme Court Affirms Lower Court's Ruling on Death Penalty

On Wednesday morning, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled to uphold the death sentence of Alan Matthew Champagne who killed two people and then buried them in his mother’s backyard, only to be discovered 20 months later by a landscaper. In affirming the lower court’s ruling, the Court rejected Champagne’s argument that Arizona’s death penalty violated both the U.S. Constitution and the Arizona Constitution. Champagne also lost on a host of other challenges that the Court assessed and rejected.

Justice Bolick wrote the opinion on behalf of a unanimous court. It clocked in at 36 pages – considerably longer than the average Arizona Supreme Court opinion. The opinion is Justice Bolick’s second majority opinion of 2019. He has also authored three dissents and one concurrence. Of the 19 opinions issues by the Court this year, 14 have been unanimous. For more statistics on the Court’s 2019 opinions, see here.

Champagne made many challenges to his conviction, 11 of which of the Court explored, including:

  • Request for Change of Counsel. According to the Court, “the Sixth Amendment guarantees an accused the right to counsel,” but the “defendant is not, however, entitled to counsel of choice or to a meaningful relationship with his or her attorney.” (internal quotations omitted). Trial courts do have a “duty to inquire into the basis of a defendant’s request for change of counsel,” and assess the factors laid out in State v. LaGrand. The Court encouraged future trial courts to explicitly address LaGrand and walk through each factor.
  • Improper Jury Instruction Regarding Parole. Champagne argued that the trial court erred by issuing a jury instruction that Champagne could be released after 25 years. However, as noted by the Supreme Court, the trial court then corrected itself by later telling the jury that “If a life sentence is imposed, parole is unavailable to Mr. Champagne under state law.” Therefore no uncured error occurred.
  • Statements to Undercover Officer. Champagne made several challenges to the trial court’s refusal to suppress comments made by Champagne to an undercover officer. With respect to Miranda rights, Miranda is not implicated when a suspect provides a voluntary statement, even if to an undercover officer. Nor did the statements violate the Sixth Amendment right to counsel because the Sixth Amendment is “offense-specific,” and while Champagne had invoked his right to counsel regarding some crimes, statements on other crimes are still admissible.
  • Restricted Scope Cross-Examination of Witness. Witness Elise Garcia overheard the shooting one of Champagne’s victims and watched the strangulation of the other victim. The trial court prevented Champagne from cross-examining Garcia’s regarding her mental health. According to the Supreme Court, the trial court did not err in this respect because “Champagne failed to show that Garcia’s ability to observe and relate the events surrounding the murders was affected in any way by her mental health diagnoses.” Nor did the trial court deprive Champagne of his constitutional right to confront a witness.
  • Constitutionality of Death Penalty. Champagne argued that the Arizona death penalty is insufficiently narrow so as to be reserved for only the most serious crimes, and is insufficiently specific such as to give the sentencing authority guidance. The Court rejected both of these challenges.

Abuse of Discretion Review. Arizona law requires the Court to “review all death sentences to determine whether the trier of fact abused its discretion in finding aggravating circumstances and imposing a sentence of death.” The Court ruled that the jury did not abuse its discretion in calling for the death penalty because Champagne had been previously convicted of a serious offense; he murdered one victim in “an especially cruel manner,” and he committed multiple homicides.

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