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Arizona Supreme Court Upholds Death Penalty Law

Abel Daniel Hidalgo
(Photo courtesy of the Arizona Department of Corrections)
Abel Daniel Hidalgo.

A convicted murderer’s death sentence will move forward after an Arizona court upheld the state’s standards for capital punishment.

Abel Daniel Hidalgo was sentenced to death for the January 2001 contract killing of Phoenix auto-body shop owner Michael Cordova and the killing of upholsterer Jose Rojas, a potential witness.

Hidalgo pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and burglary as his trial in the Phoenix killings started.

After a penalty-phase trial, a jury gave Hidalgo two death sentences. Hidalgo pleaded guilty to a federal court in Idaho to the fatal 2002 shootings of two Shoshone-Bannock women, 21-year-old Leigha Tacunan and 42-year-old Margaret Fellows.

The state’s Supreme Court rejected the challenge from defense lawyers who argued criteria for a death sentence are too broad.

Lawyers for Hidalgo say Arizona's death-penalty law is not narrow enough - that the state defines fourteen “aggravated circumstances” prosecutors may use to seek the death penalty instead of life in prison.

Some of those circumstances include killing for money, police killings and killing a child under 15.

Attorneys also said defendants due-process rights are violated in the process because nearly every first-degree murder case filed in Maricopa County could support at least one aggravating factor.

However, the Supreme Court’s ruling authored by Chief Justice Scott Bales noted that prosecutors only sought a death penalty in about 10 percent of Maricopa County first-degree murder cases in a two-year span earlier this decade.

The justices denied Hidalgo’s appeal in a unanimous ruling, and upheld the two murder convictions and the death sentences of the defendant.

Heather van Blokland was a host at KJZZ from 2016 to 2021.