A capital case is one where the defendant is charged with first-degree murder and the state has decided to seek the death penalty as punishment if the defendant is convicted.
A capital case involves several phases: Trial, Aggravation Phase, Penalty Phase
Capital cases differ from non-capital felony cases in several ways:
- Once it is determined that the state is likely to give notice that it will seek the death penalty, two defense lawyers are automatically appointed to the case, along with one investigator and one mitigation specialist. In a non-capital case, only one lawyer is appointed and an investigator must be requested rather than automatically appointed.
- The defense has more time to prepare a capital case for trial because of the need to thoroughly investigate the defendant and his or her background for the existence and development of mitigation evidence. (See next tab)
- A non-capital trial has two parts: the first where the jury decides if the defendant is guilty or not, and a second where the jury decides if there are circumstances which increase the length of the sentence. A capital trial has three parts: the first where the jury decides if the defendant is guilty or not, a second where the jury decides if there are aggravating circumstances that make the defendant eligible for the death penalty, and a third where the jury decides if the sentence should be death or natural life (life without the possibility of parole).
- In non-capital cases, the judge decides the sentence. In capital cases, the jury decides whether the defendant is sentenced to death or natural life.
Mitigation is defined as any evidence that is sufficiently substantial to call for leniency, which is a sentence of less than death.
To assist in the collection and development of mitigation, capital teams include a mitigation specialist. This is a person with a mental health or social services background whose job it is to investigate the defendant's entire life to determine the history and forces that led to the defendant's actions. Mitigating circumstances can include, but are not limited to, age, level of participation in the offense, mental health, family history, substance abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and issues related to education, military services, and other influences on the defendant. The mitigation does not have to connect to or be the cause of the offense, but is evidence that the jury could use, in fairness and mercy, to return a natural life sentence.
Not every person convicted of first-degree murder can be sentenced to death. Once a defendant has been convicted or first-degree murder in the first part of the trial, the state then has the burden of proving that the defendant is eligible for the death penalty. This part of the trial is called the aggravation phase.
In this phase, the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt, one or more aggravating circumstances. These include, but are not limited to, the number of victims murdered, if the victim was under fifteen years old, if the victim was a police officer, if the defendant had previously been convicted of another homicide or other serious felonies, or if the murder was committed in an especially cruel, heinous or depraved manner. If the jury finds that no aggravating circumstances exist, then the judge will sentence the defendant to natural life.
If the jury finds that one or more aggravating factors exist, then the third part of the trial begins. This is called the penalty phase. In the phase, the defense presents its mitigation evidence to try to convince the jury that the defendant's life should be spared.
The state can present evidence designed to show that death is the appropriate sentence. They jury must unanimously find that the defendant should be sentenced to death or natural life. If the jury cannot make a unanimous decision, then a second penalty phase will occur. If after the second penalty phase the jury does not make a unanimous decision, the judge will sentence the defendant to natural life.
The death penalty is the most severe sentence available under the law. Arizona, therefore, has established procedures to protect the constitutional rights of an individual sentenced to death. One of those procedures is called post-conviction relief, and it is the process that reviews the capital case trial and appellate proceeding.
Arizona law provides an automatic appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court to an individual sentenced to death. If the Arizona Supreme Court affirms the individual's conviction and death sentence, the court will file a notice of post-conviction relief and appoint counsel to represent the individual sentenced to death.
Post-conviction proceedings are governed by Rule 32 of the Arizona Rules of Procedure and provide the grounds for Available relief, including a new guilt or sentencing trial. The most common ground raised in post-conviction is ineffective assistance of trial or appellate counsel. The Arizona and US Constitutions also play an important part in post-conviction proceedings and provide additional grounds for an individual to seek a new trail or other available relief.
Rule 32 Proceedings
Post Conviction Relief is commonly referred to as "Rule 32 Proceedings". The right to post-conviction relief has time limits. The time requirements must be followed. Failure to follow the rules may result in giving up the right to have the court review the case.
The Capital post-conviction unit works collaboratively to:
- Review the trial and appellate proceedings and the files of the trial and appellate defense teams
- Conduct a new investigation to determine whether information exists to challenge either the murder conviction or death sentence
- File a petition for post-conviction relief in the court
- Conduct an evidentiary hearing, if one is ordered by the court
- Seek review with the Arizona Supreme Court of any claims dismissed by the trial court
The Capital post-conviction unit scrutinizes all information and conducts a thorough investigation in order to seek relief, to raise all constitutional error, and to preserve all factual information for review in federal court. After the state court proceedings, including trial, appellate, and post-conviction, a capital case enters the federal courts for federal habeas corpus proceedings.