Wednesday, August 7, 2019

NEW: AZ Supreme Court Rejects Gang Killer's Argument That Death Penalty Scheme Is Unconstitutional (READ Opinion)

The Arizona Supreme Court today unanimously rejected the appeal of a gang member who killed his (semi-)brother-in-law and the man's girlfriend, then buried the bodies in his mother's backyard. In so doing, the Justices rejected his challenge to Arizona's death penalty scheme, saying that a proper jury instruction narrows an otherwise-vague aggravating factor.

Alan Champagne presented more than two dozen bases for appealing the Maricopa County jury's death sentence, and the Court rejected all of them. Champagne was convicted for the 2011 Phoenix murders of Philmon Tapaha and Brandi Hoffner in his apartment after a night of drinking, and smoking meth. After a week, he then conned the apartment maintenance man to help him build a wooden box (for car parts) and buried the bodies in his mother's backyard. (The house was being foreclosed upon.)

After Hoffner had witnessed the killing of Tapaha, Champagne offered her some meth, prevented her from leaving the bedroom, and then strangled her with an electrical cord. The State presented this to the jury as an aggravating factor in the sentencing.

Champagne argued that the statute's definition was vague, and that only the Legislature/Governor could narrow it. The Supreme Court disagreed:
Section 13-751(F)(6) provides that the trier of fact shall
consider whether “[t]he defendant committed the offense in an especially
heinous, cruel or depraved manner” as an aggravating circumstance in
determining whether to impose a death sentence. This Court has held that
“[t]he (F)(6) aggravator is facially vague but may be remedied with
appropriate narrowing instructions.” And we have approved of “especially cruel” instructions that require the jury to find two essential narrowing factors: “the victim was
conscious during the mental anguish or physical pain” and “the defendant
knew or should have known that the victim would suffer.” 
The Supreme Court's full 36-page Opinion, written by Justice Clint Bolick, is below, and further descriptions of the case can be found in this series of Phoenix New Times articles from 2013.

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