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State v. Hidalgo

Supreme Court of Arizona

March 15, 2017

State of Arizona, Appellee,
Abel Daniel Hidalgo, Appellant.

         Appeal from the Superior Court in Maricopa County The Honorable Roland J. Steinle, III, Judge No. CR2011-005473

          Mark Brnovich, Arizona Attorney General, Dominic Draye, Solicitor General, Lacey Stover Gard, Chief Counsel, Capital Litigation Section, Andrew S. Reilly (argued), Assistant Attorney General, Phoenix, Attorneys for State of Arizona

          Bruce F. Peterson, Maricopa County Office of the Legal Advocate, Consuelo M. Ohanesian (argued), Susan Corey (argued), Deputy Legal Advocates, Phoenix, Attorneys for Abel Daniel Hidalgo

          CHIEF JUSTICE BALES authored the opinion of the Court, in which VICE CHIEF JUSTICE PELANDER and JUSTICES BRUTINEL, TIMMER, and BOLICK joined.



         ¶1 This automatic appeal concerns Abel Daniel Hidalgo's 2015 death sentences for murdering Michael Cordova and Jose Rojas. We have jurisdiction under article 6, section 5(3) of the Arizona Constitution and A.R.S. §§ 13-4031 and -4033(A).


         ¶2 In late December 2000, Hidalgo agreed to kill Michael Cordova in exchange for $1, 000 from a gang member. He accepted the offer without knowing Cordova or why the gang wanted him murdered. One morning in January 2001, Hidalgo waited in his car near Cordova's auto-body shop. When Cordova began unlocking the shop, Hidalgo approached and feigned interest in some repair work. They were joined by Jose Rojas, who occasionally did upholstery work for Cordova and came that morning to retrieve some equipment. After the three men entered the shop, Hidalgo shot Rojas in the back of the head. Hidalgo then shot Cordova in the forehead. Even though the shots were fatal, Hidalgo shot each victim five more times to ensure he died.

         ¶3 After murdering Cordova and Rojas, Hidalgo went to the home of his godparents, Frank and Barbara Valenzuela. Barbara overheard Hidalgo tell others that he had just murdered two men and wanted to sell his car to Frank because a woman had seen him leave the shop. Frank purchased the car, and a few days later Hidalgo fled Arizona.

         ¶4 A year later, Barbara informed the Maricopa County Attorney's Office that Hidalgo murdered Cordova and Rojas. Phoenix Police subsequently interviewed Hidalgo in Idaho, where he had murdered two women in January 2002 and was under federal arrest. Hidalgo confessed to murdering Cordova for $1, 000 and to killing Rojas to eliminate an eyewitness.

         ¶5 Hidalgo pleaded guilty in January 2015 to two counts of first degree murder and one count of first degree burglary. The jury found four aggravating circumstances with respect to the murder of Cordova and three with respect to the murder of Rojas: Hidalgo committed another offense eligible for a sentence of life imprisonment or death under Arizona law; Hidalgo committed prior serious offenses; Hidalgo murdered for pecuniary gain (only with respect to Cordova); and Hidalgo committed multiple homicides. A.R.S. §§ 13-751(F)(1), (F)(2), (F)(5), and (F)(8). Considering these factors and the mitigation evidence, the jury sentenced Hidalgo to death for each murder. The trial court also sentenced Hidalgo to 10.5 years' imprisonment for the burglary.


         A. Facial Challenge to A.R.S. § 13-751

         ¶6 Before trial, Hidalgo filed a motion alleging that Arizona's death penalty statute is unconstitutional because the statutorily identified aggravating factors do not adequately narrow the class of those eligible for the death penalty and defendants are denied equal protection because poorer counties cannot afford to pursue death sentences. His motion was consolidated with similar motions filed by defendants in other cases. The defendants sought an evidentiary hearing to establish that every first degree murder case filed in Maricopa County in 2010 and 2011 could support at least one aggravating factor and that rural counties cannot afford to seek death sentences. The trial court denied the hearing request, ruling that even if the defendants' factual allegations are accepted as true, the constitutional claims fail as a matter of law.

         ¶7 On appeal, Hidalgo argues: (1) he was denied due process when the trial court refused to hold an evidentiary hearing; (2) A.R.S. § 13-751 fails to adequately narrow the class of those eligible for a death sentence; and (3) death sentences are arbitrarily imposed because poorer counties cannot afford to pursue the death penalty. This Court reviews a trial court's decision whether to hold an evidentiary hearing for abuse of discretion, State v. Spears, 184 Ariz. 277, 289, 908 P.2d 1062, 1074 (1996), and reviews "constitutional issues and purely legal issues de novo." State v. Moody, 208 Ariz. 424, 445 ¶ 62, 94 P.3d 1119, 1140 (2004).

         1. The Refusal to Grant an Evidentiary Hearing

         ¶8 Hidalgo argues that he was entitled to an evidentiary hearing even though the trial court assumed his factual allegations were true in reviewing his constitutional claims. In various contexts, courts have recognized that evidentiary hearings are not required when courts need not resolve factual disputes to decide constitutional issues. E.g., State v. Gomez, 231 Ariz. 219, 225-26 ¶ 29, 293 P.3d 495, 501-02 (2012) (finding that trial courts need not hold an evidentiary hearing on motion for new counsel where "there is no indication that a hearing would elicit additional facts beyond those already before the court"); see also State v. Amoral, 239 Ariz. 217, 219 ¶ 9, 220 ¶ 11, 368 P.3d 925, 927, 928 (2016) (noting that a postconviction relief petitioner is entitled to a hearing "if he or she presents a 'colorable claim[, ]'" i.e., if the petitioner "has alleged facts which, if true, would probably have changed the verdict or sentence").

         ¶9 Although Hidalgo correctly notes that capital defendants are accorded heightened procedural safeguards, see, e.g., Monge v. California, 524 U.S. 721, 732-33 (1998), he has not identified any opinions holding that a capital defendant is entitled to an evidentiary hearing on a pretrial motion even if the court's ruling does not turn on disputed facts. Hidalgo also does not convincingly explain how the denial of an evidentiary hearing or the lack of findings of fact has hindered appellate review of his constitutional claims. Notably, he has not identified any particular evidence that he would have offered that would materially add to the factual record before the trial court or this Court on appeal.

         ¶10 Hidalgo also correctly notes that due process entitles parties to notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard, citing Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U.S. 507 (2004), and Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976). But neither of these cases is apposite. Mathews, which concerned the denial of disability benefits, outlined a balancing test for identifying what process is due before persons may be deprived of liberty or property. 424 U.S. at 323, 334-35. Hamdi applied that test in holding that citizens detained by the military are entitled to a hearing to challenge their designation as enemy combatants. 542 U.S. at 529-35.

         ¶11 Citing Hamdi and Fuentes v. Shevin, 407 U.S. 67 (1972), Hidalgo also argues that a defendant is entitled to be heard even if the court believes his claim is invalid. See Hamdi, 542 U.S. at 530 ("'[T]he right to procedural due process is 'absolute' in the sense that it does not depend upon the merits of a claimant's substantive assertions.'") (quoting Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 266 (1978)); Fuentes, 407 U.S. at 87 ("The right to be heard does not depend upon an advance showing that one will surely prevail at the hearing."). Hamdi and Fuentes each considered whether any hearing was required. See Hamdi, 542 U.S. at 509; Fuentes, 407 U.S. at 69-70. Hidalgo also argues that parties must be permitted to develop both the law and the facts, citing Kessen v. Stewart, 195 Ariz. 488, 492 ¶ 16, 990 P.2d 689, 693 (App. 1999). But "[p]rocedural due process ... requires nothing more than an adequate opportunity to fully present factual and legal claims." Id. Hidalgo was afforded an adequate opportunity to be heard. Procedural due process does not require an evidentiary hearing on a motion when the legal claims do not turn on disputed facts.

         ¶12 Finally, citing People v. Ballard, 794 N.E.2d 788 (111. 2002), Hidalgo contends that whether a statute adequately narrows the class of those eligible for the death penalty is necessarily a factual question. Ballard rejected an argument that Illinois's capital sentencing scheme was unconstitutional because it had so many aggravating factors that it was "difficult to imagine a first degree murder defendant who does not qualify under at least one, if not several factors." Id. at 817. The majority in Ballard rejected the argument because: (1) the sentencing scheme narrowed the eligible defendants by means beyond the list of aggravating circumstances; and (2) it is impossible to identify how many aggravating circumstances would be too many for constitutional purposes. Id. at 819. The majority also observed that the defendant had not demonstrated that his claims were empirically accurate, id., a point also noted by a concurring opinion, which stated, "whether the constitutional requirement of narrowing has occurred is a factual one." Id. at 826 (McMorrow, J., specially concurring). The concurrence did not suggest an evidentiary hearing is invariably required, but instead that the defendant's claims failed for lack of substantiation rather than as a matter of law. Id.

         ¶13 The trial court did not abuse its discretion here in denying an evidentiary hearing and instead assuming the truth of Hidalgo's factual assertions for purposes of ruling on the pending motion.

         2. The Claim that A.R.S. § 13-751 Does Not Sufficiently Narrow the Class of Defendants Eligible for the Death Penalty

         ¶14 To be constitutionally sound, "a capital sentencing scheme must 'genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty and must reasonably justify the imposition of a more severe sentence on the defendant compared to others found guilty of murder.'" Lowenfield v. Phelps, 484 U.S. 231, 244 (1988) (quoting Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 877 (1983)). Hidalgo contends that A.R.S. §13-751 does not satisfy this requirement.

         ¶15 We rejected a similar challenge in State v. Greenway, 170 Ariz. 155, 823 P.2d 22 (1991). Since Greenway, the legislature has expanded the list and the scope of individual aggravators. Compare A.R.S. § 13-703(F) (1989 & Supp. 1991) (enumerating ten aggravators), with A.R.S. § 13-751(F) (2010 & Supp. 2016) (enumerating fourteen aggravators). As a result, Hidalgo argues, virtually every first degree murder case in Maricopa County has facts that could support at least one aggravator.

         ¶16 In rejecting Hidalgo's argument, the trial court stated that it was bound by Greenway and State v. Hausner, 230 Ariz. 60, app. at 89, 280 P.3d 604, app. at 633 (2012) (noting similar argument in appendix listing claims defendant sought to preserve for federal review). The trial court acknowledged the legislature has expanded the scope of death penalty aggravators and the defendants offered to establish a precedential fact in Arizona - that the aggravators cover every first degree murder case filed within a broad period of time. Nonetheless, the court concluded that jury findings can supply the constitutionally required narrowing in a particular case.

         ¶17 Hidalgo argues the legislature must statutorily narrow the scope of death-eligible murders. With the State's permission, he supplemented the record on appeal with an expanded study of first degree murder cases in several counties over an eleven-year period, which concludes ...

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