The Arizona Supreme Court has thrown out the death sentence for a man convicted of sexually assaulting and killing a woman nearly 16 years ago at her apartment in Phoenix, ruling the trial judge made an error in refusing to let jurors hear that he was ineligible for parole.
The court on Thursday upheld the convictions of Joel Randu Escalante-Orozco in the 2001 death of Maria Garza-Rivera, but sent his case back to a lower court for a new sentencing trial on his first-degree murder conviction.
The decision leading to the new sentencing trial centered on whether jurors should have been told about Escalante-Orozco's chances of release from prison if they opted against a death sentence and instead imposed a life sentence.
The trial judge told jurors that if they decided on a life sentence, then the judge would decide whether Escalante-Orozco would have a chance at release after serving 25 years. Escalante-Orozco's attorney argued jurors shouldn't consider his potential for release when deciding whether to impose the death penalty.
The state's highest court cited a decision made seven months ago in another death-penalty case from Arizona.
In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people convicted in death-penalty cases have a right to tell jurors that parole is unavailable to them in situations where prosecutors make an issue of their "future dangerousness" and acknowledge that the only alternative to a death sentence is life in prison without parole.
In Escalante-Orozco's case, prosecutors argued they didn't put his future dangerousness at issue, though a prosecutor told jurors that Escalante-Orozco had given up his right to live through all the evil that he committed.
Garza-Rivera's body was found a day after Escalante-Orozco, who worked as a maintenance worker at the apartment complex, had installed flooring at her apartment. She was beaten and stabbed until she bled to death.
Escalante-Orozco told police that he had consumed two beers the night of the killing and that "everything went blank" until he found himself lying atop the victim's blood-soaked body. The victim's then-3-year-old son, who wasn't harmed, wandered around the apartment in the aftermath.
The ruling said Escalante-Orozco returned to his apartment to shower, threw away his blood-covered clothes in a trash bin at the complex and took a bus to Mexico. He was taken into custody six years later in Idaho.
Escalante-Orozco, who denied assaulting and killing Garza-Rivera, suggested that he had been drugged by relatives who were angry at him.
His trial defense focused on a theory that another man sexually attacked and killed Garza-Rivera in a jealous rage because she was interested in Escalante-Orozco's companionship.