Justia Summary

Cruz, convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death, argued that under the Supreme Court’s “Simmons” decision, he should have been allowed to inform the jury that a life sentence in Arizona would be without parole. The Arizona Supreme Court held that Arizona’s capital sentencing scheme did not trigger Simmons. The Supreme Court subsequently held ("Lynch" (2016)), that it was fundamental error to conclude that Simmons “did not apply” in Arizona.

Cruz sought to raise the Simmons issue under Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(g), which permits a successive post-conviction petition if “there has been a significant change in the law that, if applicable … would probably overturn the defendant’s judgment or sentence.” The Arizona Supreme Court denied relief, reasoning that a significant change in the application of a law is not a significant change in the law itself, focusing on whether Lynch was a significant change in federal law.

The U.S. Supreme Court vacated. A state procedural ruling that is “firmly established and regularly followed” ordinarily forecloses review of a federal claim but the Arizona ruling rests on such a novel and unforeseeable interpretation of a state-court procedural rule that it is not adequate to foreclose review of the federal claim. Although Lynch did not change the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Simmons, it did change the operation of Simmons by Arizona courts in a way that matters for Rule 32.1(g). The analytic focus of Arizona courts applying Rule 32.1(g) has always been on the impact on Arizona law.