2019-2021


State v. (Alan Matthew) Champagne, 247 Ariz. 116, 447 P.3d 297, (2019)
(Convictions and Death Sentence Affirmed)

PROCEDURAL POSTURE:

On June 24, 2011, Champagne shot and killed Philmon Tapaha. He then strangled to death Tapaha’s girlfriend, Brandi Hoffner. Champagne’s friend, Elise Garcia, was present in the apartment when both murders occurred. Champagne eventually placed both bodies in a large wooden box, which he buried in his mother’s backyard. About twenty months later, a landscaper discovered the box.

The State charged Champagne with two counts of first degree murder, one count of kidnapping Hoffner, and two counts of abandonment or concealment of the bodies. The jury convicted Champagne of the charged offenses, except it found him guilty on the lesser included offense of second-degree murder for Tapaha’s killing. The jury found, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Champagne (1) had been previously convicted of a serious offense, A.R.S. § 13-751 (F) (2); (2) committed Hoffner’s murder in an especially cruel manner, (F) (6); and (3) was convicted of committing multiple homicides during the commission of the offense, (F) (8). After the penalty phase, the jury returned a death sentence.

The Court further reviewed the death sentence for an abuse of discretion and found that reasonable evidence supported the jury’s verdict on the three aggravating circumstances, and that a reasonable jury could have concluded that the mitigating factors, presented at the penalty phase, were not sufficiently substantial to warrant leniency.


AGGRAVATING CIRCUMSTANCES:

(F) (2) (PRIOR CONVICTION/SERIOUS OFFENSE) – NOT CHALLENGED

(F) (8) (MULTIPLE HOMICIDES) – NOT CHALLENGED

(F) (6) (ESPECIALLY CRUEL) – UPHELD

A.R.S. § 13-751 (F) (6) provided that the defendant “committed the offense in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner.” Champagne argued that because the Arizona judiciary created the parameter of the especially cruel aggravating factor, there was a violation of the separation of powers doctrine.

The Arizona Supreme Court reiterated that the (F) (6) aggravator is facially vague, but that this can be remedied with appropriate narrowing instructions. At Champagne’s trial, the court instructed the jury that to find the (F) (6) circumstance, it "must find that the victim consciously suffered physical or mental pain, distress or anguish prior to death” and that the “defendant must know or should have known that the victim would suffer." The Court found that this instruction contained two essential narrowing factors described in State v. Tucker, 215 Ariz. 298, 310-11 ¶¶ 28, 31 (2007) and sufficiently narrowed the (F) (6) factor.

The Court further found meritless Champagne’s argument that the judicial narrowing violated the separation of powers doctrine, and noted that it previously had rejected the argument that the legislature must statutorily narrow the scope of death-eligible murder, citing State v. Hidalgo, 241 Ariz. 543, 549-52 ¶¶ 17-28 (2017).


MITIGATING CIRCUMSTANCES:

During its abuse of discretion review pursuant to A.R.S. § 13-756 (A), the Court discussed the mitigation presented at trial, explaining that the thrust of the evidence related to Champagne’s dysfunctional family and Champagne’s claim that he was an unloved and neglected child. But the State presented evidence that Champagne’s mother was loving and supportive, and the Court noted that this evidence tended to rebut the mitigation claims. Additionally, a reasonable jury could have discounted this dysfunctional family mitigation because Champagne was nearly forty-one years old when he murdered Hoffner.


JUDGMENT:  Death sentence affirmed.


State v. (James Clayton) Johnson, 247 Ariz. 166, 447 P.3d 783, (2019)
(Convictions and Death Sentence Affirmed)

PROCEDURAL POSTURE:

In December 2010, Johnson entered Taiwan Massage and encountered its owner, Fu. Johnson bound and killed Fu, repeatedly stabbing her. Two men from next door, Marvin Pearce and Terry Weather, heard the struggle, and Weathers quickly went to check on Fu. Weathers observed disarray, and then saw Johnson exiting the bathroom, drying his hands. Weathers asked where Fu was, and Johnson said she had cut herself and left in an ambulance. Weathers quickly returned to tell Pearce what he witnessed and to call for help. The two men saw Johnson get into his truck and speed away. Police arrested Johnson three days later after he robbed a Christmas tree lot. Cell phone tower data and DNA substantiated Johnson’s involvement in Fu’s murder, and the State charged him with first degree murder, kidnapping, and burglary in the first degree.

The State alleged that Johnson: (1) previously was convicted of a serious crime, A.R.S. § 13-751 (F) (2); (2) committed the offense for pecuniary gain, (F) (5); (3) committed the offense in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner, (F) (6); and (4) that Johnson was on release (F)(7)(a) and probation (F)(7)(b) when he committed the murder. The jury convicted Johnson on all charges, found proven all the aggravating circumstances, except for pecuniary gain, and sentenced Johnson to death for the murder of Ms. Fu.

The Court also found no fundamental error in the significant error instruction because the instruction stated that “the burden was not so high `as to constitute a defense to prosecution’”; the State “argued that “impairment only referred to an `impact [on Johnson’s] ability to know right from wrong,” and discussed Johnson’s actions that undercut his claim of significant impairment; and the jury was instructed to consider other mitigation, and Johnson presented numerous mitigating circumstances, supported by witness testimony.


AGGRAVATING CIRCUMSTANCES:

(F) (2) (PRIOR CONVICTION/SERIOUS OFFENSE) – UPHELD

(F) (7) (HOMICIDE WHILE ON RELEASE) – UPHELD

(F) (6) (ESPECIALLY CRUEL and HEINOUS OR DEPRAVED) – UPHELD

The Court found that the jury instructions provided sufficient narrowing and declined to revisit prior cases rejecting the need for a comparative review of other first degree murder cases. The Court also (1) upheld the limitation on Johnson’s closing argument that referenced a comparative review; (2) found the evidence established that the murder was especially cruel, focusing on the victim’s suffering; and that the murder was especially heinous or depraved, based on infliction of gratuitous violence, mutilation of victim, senseless of murder, helplessness of victim.

The Court also rejected Johnson’s argument that the Arizona death penalty statutes fail to sufficiently narrow the class of first degree murders eligible for a death sentence citing to State v. Hidalgo, 241 Ariz. 543, 549-52 ¶¶ 14-29 (2017).


MITIGATING CIRCUMSTANCES:

During its abuse of discretion review pursuant to A.R.S. § 13-756(A), the Court discussed the mitigation presented at trial, explaining that the thrust of the evidence related to Johnson’s his substance abuse, the Columbine shooting, and his PTSD, but was countered by the State during rebuttal and that this evidence tended to rebut the mitigation claims. Additionally, a reasonable jury could have concluded that Johnson’s proffered mitigation did not call for leniency in light of the brutality and senselessness of the murder along with the other aggravating factors.


JUDGMENT:  Death sentence affirmed.


State v. (Thomas Michael) Riley, 248 Ariz. 154, 459 P.3d 66 (2020)
(Convictions and Death Sentence Affirmed)

PROCEDURAL POSTURE:

The murder victim and the defendant were inmates at the State Prison Complex-Lewis. The defendant intended to join the Aryan Brotherhood (AB), and requested and received authorization to assault the victim. The defendant and two accomplices entered the victim’s cell and stabbed the victim 114 times with homemade prison knives. The evidence of defendant’s involvement included the victim’s blood, confirmed by DNA testing, on the defendant’s body. Investigators also found defendant’s inmate card inside a pair of bloody pants located in the victim’s cell. Two years after the murder, an inmate provided investigators with a letter he received from defendant that explicitly described the murder. A handwriting analysis, and defendant’s fingerprint on the letter, confirmed that the defendant wrote it.


AGGRAVATING CIRCUMSTANCES:

(F) (2) (PRIOR CONVICTION/SERIOUS OFFENSE) – UPHELD

(F) (6) (ESPECIALLY CRUEL and HEINOUS OR DEPRAVED) – UPHELD

(F) (7) (HOMICIDE WHILE IN ADOC CUSTODY) – UPHELD

(F) (11) (HOMICIDE TO PROMOTE, FURTHER OR ASSIST CRIMINAL STREET GANG) – UPHELD

(F) (13) (COLD, CALCULATE MANNER W/OUT PRETENSE OF MORAL OR LEGAL JUSTIFICATION) – UPHELD

The Court rejected Riley’s argument that the Arizona death penalty statutes fail to sufficiently narrow the class of first degree murders eligible for a death sentence citing to State v. Hidalgo, 241 Ariz. 543, 549-52 ¶¶ 14-29 (2017).

The Court noted that the (F)(13) aggravator was withdrawn by the Legislature, effective August 27, 2019; however, the Court found no constitutional error because the jury instruction sufficiently narrowed this facially vague aggravator.

The Court also noted that the trial court informed the jurors that defendant was eligible for a life sentence with the possibility of release; however, because Riley did not object or request a parole ineligibility instruction, under State v. Bush, 244 Ariz. 575, 593 ¶ 74 (2018), relief was foreclosed and defendant failed to establish Simmons error.


MITIGATING CIRCUMSTANCES:

During its abuse of discretion review pursuant to A.R.S. § 13-756(A), the Court noted that Riley waived his right to present mitigation during the penalty phase of his trial, but stated, citing Hausner, 230 Ariz. at 87 ¶ 129, 280 P.3d at 631 (quoting Granville, 211 Ariz. at 473 ¶ 18, 123 P.3d at 667), that “evidence admitted at the guilt phase is admitted for purposes of the sentencing phase, A.R.S. § 13–752(I), and the jury must ‘consider the mitigating circumstances, whether proved by the defendant or present in the record, in determining whether death is the appropriate sentence.’”

The Court held that substantial, reasonable evidence supported the five aggravating circumstances, and “because we conclude that a reasonable juror could find that Riley failed to establish sufficient and credible mitigation evidence, the jury did not abuse its discretion in returning a death sentence.”


JUDGMENT: Death sentence affirmed.


State v. (John Michael) Allen, 248 Ariz. 352, 460 P.3d 1236 (2020)
(Convictions and Death Sentence Affirmed)

PROCEDURAL POSTURE:

Allen and other adults extensively abused the ten-year year victim when imposing punishment. On July 12, Allen and his wife punished the victim for stealing a popsicle. The two put the victim inside a plastic box that was twenty-one inches shorter than the victim, locked the box, and went to bed. The medical examiner testified that “the victim died from “being stuffed inside this box,” which had decreased air availability and, given the size of the box, also restricted her “ability to have air exchange” by pushing her chin down against her chest.” Family members called the police after finding the victim nonresponsive the following morning. The police learned that the victim had previously been placed in the box, and defendant eventually confessed to abusing the victim over the prior year and to locking her in the box on July 12.


AGGRAVATING CIRCUMSTANCES:

(F) (2) (PRIOR CONVICTION/SERIOUS OFFENSE) – UPHELD

(F) (6) (ESPECIALLY CRUEL and HEINOUS OR DEPRAVED) – UPHELD

(F) (9) (VICTIM A MINOR UNDER 15) – UPHELD

The Court upheld the jury’s Enmund/Tison finding, where 11 jurors found defendant killed the victim and 11 jurors found he was major participant in child abuse that resulted in death and he acted with reckless indifference to the victim’s life. The Court found each finding supported by the evidence.

The Court upheld the (F)(6) aggravator and disagreed with Allen’s argument that he was an accomplice and this required the State to prove he intended the victim’s suffering; finding, that Allen directly participated in the victim’s murder, and it found distinguishable case law addressing a murder where the defendant neither killed nor witnessed the murder.


MITIGATING CIRCUMSTANCES:

During the penalty phase Allen admitted he killed A.D. and asked the jury to spare his life, introduced his offer to plead guilty to all charges and serve a natural life term in prison, and during closing arguments, his counsel emphasized that Allen took responsibility for his actions, felt remorseful, did not intend for A.D. to die, would never be released from prison if sentenced to life without the possibility of release, and had already been deprived of his children by the State. The Court noted that this evidence was not powerful, and during its abuse of discretion review pursuant to A.R.S. § 13-756(A), held that based on Allen’s proffered mitigation a reasonable juror could have concluded that this evidence, even if mitigating, was not sufficiently substantial to warrant leniency when weighed against the aggravating circumstances.


JUDGMENT: Death sentence affirmed.


State v. (Allyn Akeem) Smith, 250 Ariz. 69, 475 P.3d 558 (2020)
(Convictions and Death Sentence Affirmed)

PROCEDURAL POSTURE:

Evidence at trial established that Smith drove the victims (his former girlfriend (K.L.) and their two-month-old daughter (K.S.)) to a trail near the base of South Mountain around 1:00-1:30p, where he fired two shots; one hitting his former girlfriend in the back of the head, and another striking the two-month old in the thigh. The victims were found around 3:00 p.m. by a hiker. K.L. was pronounced deceased at the scene. K.S. was lying outside her carrier face down on the ground with gravel in her mouth, but she survived after undergoing emergency surgery.


AGGRAVATING CIRCUMSTANCES:

(F) (2) (PRIOR CONVICTION/SERIOUS OFFENSE) – UPHELD

(F) (5) (PECUNIARY GAIN) – UPHELD

The Court held that the (F)(2) aggravator involved the shooting of an infant, K.S., and, as a result, was a particularly strong aggravating circumstance, and that the record provides substantial evidence to support both aggravators; “therefore, the jury did not abuse its discretion in finding these aggravating circumstances.“

The Court held that there was substantial circumstantial evidence that supported the jury’s (F)(5) finding. Evidence that showed Smith murdered K.L. to avoid paying child support for K.S. The Court’s analysis here included a brief reference to and acknowledgement to the Legislature’s 2019 amendments to the “pecuniary gain” aggravator.


MITIGATING CIRCUMSTANCES:

Smith presented twenty-nine non-statutory mitigating circumstances, asserting, among others, that he was driven to keep his family together and avoid negative stereotypes about African American fathers, that he did not live up to his family's expectations and were highly critical of his romantic relationships, and he was sleep deprived, grieving a miscarriage suffered by Ward, lacked conflict resolution skills, had no criminal record, maintained employment, volunteered, played sports in high school, earned an academic scholarship, earned an associate degree, loves children, was a candidate to become a foster parent, and had been a model inmate. Smith presented no statutory mitigating circumstances.

The Court found sufficient evidence supported the aggravating circumstances of (F)(2) and (F)(5), and that a reasonable juror could have concluded defendant’s proffered mitigation was unpersuasive and not sufficiently substantial to warrant leniency.


JUDGMENT: Death sentence affirmed.