The case concerned Abel Daniel Hidalgo, who agreed to kill Michael Cordova, whom he did not know, for $1,000 payment from a gang member. He committed the murder at an auto body shop in 2001, and he also killed Jose Rojas, a bystander who happened to be present.
When the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 after a four-year moratorium, it upheld capital sentencing systems which sought to reserve the penalty for the worst offenders by insisting that juries find “aggravating factors” before a death sentence may be imposed.
Arizona’s system includes so many possible factors, its critics say, that it does almost nothing to cull the worst offenders from others. Around 98 percent of convicted murderers, they say, are eligible for the death penalty there.
Mr. Hidalgo pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death after a jury found that he had killed in exchange for money, committed multiple homicides and had committed another serious crime.
Justice Breyer wrote that the record in the case, Hidalgo v. Arizona, No. 17-251, as too thin to adequately evaluate the argument that the state’s approach was unconstitutional.
Using public records requests, Mr. Hidalgo’s lawyers had obtained information about 860 first-degree murder cases in one Arizona county. They showed that essentially every defendant was eligible for the death penalty under the state’s sentencing laws.
“That evidence is unrebutted,” Justice Breyer wrote. “It points to a possible constitutional problem. And it was assumed to be true by the state courts below. Evidence of this kind warrants careful attention and evaluation.”
But the state courts had rejected Mr. Hidalgo’s request for a hearing to develop and test the evidence, Justice Breyer wrote. The Supreme Court would be in a better position to consider the constitutionality of Arizona’s sentencing system, he wrote, after a more rigorous empirical inquiry.