In a 5-4 decision in Cruz v. Arizona on February 22, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court held that John Cruz should have been able to inform his sentencing jury that if he were spared a death sentence, he never would have been eligible for parole. The Court said that its holding was in direct line with its previous decisions in Simmons v. South Carolina and Lynch v. Arizona, which established this right and its specific applicability to Arizona. This ruling not only allows Cruz to renew his appeal for a new penalty trial, but it could affect nearly 30 other capital defendants in Arizona who were also sentenced to death under the state’s unconstitutional process.

In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Simmons v. South Carolina that when future dangerousness is at issue in capital sentencing, a defendant has a right to inform the jury that a life sentence means life without parole, assuming that is the effect in the state. Despite this ruling, Arizona consistently denied defendants the right to so inform the jury, arguing that life-sentenced prisoners might receive clemency. In Lynch v. Arizona (2016), the U.S. Supreme Court explicitly rejected this interpretation of Simmons.

When Cruz renewed his appeal based on Lynch, he was blocked on state procedural grounds, with the state arguing that Lynch did not apply retroactively to Cruz because the rule of Simmons was already well established at the time of Cruz’s trial. Justice Sotomayor, writing for the majority, noted the irony in the state’s position because Arizona was misapplying the law it claimed was “clearly established.”

Sotomayor called the state’s logic a “catch-22,” noting that Arizona was requiring Cruz and similarly situated petitioners to prove that Lynch was both a “significant change in the law,” and at the same time was an application of “settled” federal law to satisfy retroactivity requirements.

The Court, with Justices Roberts, Kagan, Kavanaugh and Jackson concurring, reversed the Arizona Supreme Court and remanded the case for further action. The four dissenting Justices argued that the majority’s ruling was an improper interference with state law.


Read the Supreme Court’s opin­ion here.

Adam Liptak, Supreme Court Rules for Death Row Inmate in Arizona, NY Times, Feb. 232023.